Bridges across the digital divide

By Christian BlockLex KlerenMisch Pautsch Switch to German for original article

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Digitalisation is penetrating more and more areas of life. In the process, many people risk being left behind. Digital inclusion work tries to prevent just that.

How do I send photos via smartphone? What is the difference between a laptop and a tablet? How does a video call work? Or, more recently, how does the Covid Check app work, and how do I get my vaccination certificate on my mobile phone? Mara Kroth often gets questions like these. This was also the case at the Smartphone Café organised by GoldenMe last December in Esch/Alzette.

With these informal get-togethers, the non-profit association is one of several initiatives now working on digital inclusion – and has a lot to do with it. "I think you can basically say that the way things are going at the moment is the opposite of digital inclusion", says Mara Kroth. By this, she means the increasingly frequent replacement of analogue procedures with digital ones. For those who can cope with it, the digitalisation of processes usually means an increase in comfort and speed, for example, when one is no longer dependent on the opening hours and telephone availability of office staff to make an appointment. The downside is that part of society cannot cope with these changes. "The moment you don't take a certain group with you or don't facilitate access, digital inclusion doesn't happen." Kroth reports, for example, the case of an elderly lady who, when calling her doctor (via smartphone), reached an answering machine at the other end of the line. The recorded message asked the caller to make an appointment either by mail or via a digital provider. "In a situation like this, you either have to seek help or you have a problem. That's not very inclusive", says Kroth and therefore sees the "digital divide" as a form of division in society. One should not underestimate "what this does to people", she warns. GoldenMe tries to build a bridge across the digital divide and in this way also prevent social isolation. "Digital inclusion means creating offers to bring people along who are simply not digital natives and don't have easy access."

"The moment you don't take a certain group with you or don't facilitate access, digital inclusion doesn't happen."

Mara Kroth, GoldenMe

The term "digital inclusion" has now become established in political language. It is a component of the EU Commission's digital strategy "to ensure that everyone can contribute to and benefit from the digital world". There has also been a first national action plan since October 2021.


Mara Kroth

One can approach the topic with the help of statistical indicators. According to Statec, for example, six per cent of households had no internet connection in 2020 – according to Eurostat estimates, it was still one per cent in 2021. One per cent of the population said in 2020 that they had never used the internet. 13 per cent of internet users had not used their smartphone to access the internet. However, this figure is from 2019 and is probably no longer up to date. Six per cent do not use digital services because they are concerned about their personal data. For about nine per cent, the non-use of digital public services is explained by a lack of skills. Perhaps less telling is the fact that around 30 per cent of the population in the 65–74 age bracket do not use the internet daily.

What the figures do not reveal is the great heterogeneity of profiles that are in danger of being left behind the digitalisation wave. This can be the case of workers who need to reorient or retrain themselves due to technological developments such as the automation of processes or the alignment of different competences of children and young people. The lack of accessibility of websites and documents is another facet of the issue. Gender-specific differences are another. For example, if the husband has always taken care of the banking and administrative matters but is then outlived by the partner. Digital inclusion can also have a material dimension. For example, refugees who do not have the means to buy a PC and/or have never had anything to do with a computer.

"Then the PC becomes the key to your own autonomy."

Patrick de la Hamette, Digital Inclusion

One contact point for such cases is Digital Inclusion. In Luxembourg, the non-profit association has done pioneering work in the field of digital inclusion. What started small in 2016 has grown considerably over the years. The organisation has now distributed more than 3,500 computers to people who cannot afford them and employs 16 people (eleven full-time equivalents).

Making information technology available to all is one of three goals of the non-profit organisation. In addition to providing hardware, this also includes a range of courses. The association teaches people how to use office software, the internet, emails or dealing with the authorities, and in Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese or even Tigrinya (for people from Ethiopia and Eritrea). It is not uncommon for refugees to struggle with a mouse and keyboard because they have never worked with their own PC. Since 2018, the association has also started distributing and offering courses on how to use smartphones. While the focus in the founding phase was primarily on the language and cultural barriers of migrants and their access to the digital world, the focus, or one could also say the need, has turned out to be more significant. Digital Inclusion's offer is aimed at all people living in precarious circumstances.

Patrick de la Hamette

By providing not only hardware but also the necessary knowledge, Digital Inclusion is empowering. Participants learn how to use the computer to their advantage, be it to find work or to learn languages. Digital Inclusion also offers a language learning programme. This is ideal for those who learn a language at their own pace and for whom their courses are not regular enough, says Digital Inclusion co-founder Patrick de la Hamette. "Then the PC becomes the key to your own autonomy."

"The pandemic has once again confirmed what we have been saying for years: that digital inclusion is important and can be an exclusionary factor, especially in the social sphere. This is exactly the phenomenon that became apparent in the lockdown", he explains. Although schools and the government made efforts to equip students with the necessary hardware in the transition to distance learning, some were left out. Digital Inclusion went mobile. With strong support, Lions Club volunteers delivered PCs across the country. In 2020, Digital Inclusion distributed a total of 750 computers and 175 smartphones.

For the IT engineer, digital inclusion also means raising the question of whether a country like Luxembourg shouldn't go down the path of providing free internet access at home. "Since Corona, we see that an internet connection is not just a service, but a key point to exercise one's rights as a citizen." At least the national strategy paper considers a step in this direction. "To prevent a digital divide", all households should be able to use the internet at home via "targeted support measures". By 2025, every household should be able to have a connection with at least 100 Mbit/s downstream.

It is not possible to say anything more precise about this today. In response to a question by Journal, the State Ministry's Department of Media, Connectivity and Digital Agenda said it was working with the Ministry of Family Affairs on "short- and medium-term assistance" to enable low-income households to afford internet access at home. This will probably amount to a reduction in subscription costs. More details can only be expected in the coming months, as the decision on a mechanism that can be practically implemented is still pending.

"Digital literacy is not just about explaining a function or process, but about creating a general understanding of how everything is connected."

Mara Kroth, GoldenMe

Self-empowerment is also a keyword for GoldenMe. Those who let their grandchildren set this or that on their smartphones have overcome one hurdle but will face the same problem again the next time. "Digital literacy is not just about explaining a function or process, but about creating a general understanding of how everything is connected", says Mara Kroth, citing the functioning of a cloud as an example.

The need for information has increased once again in the pandemic. Kroth speaks of a wake-up call for all those who until then shied away from dealing with computers or smartphones. "They have to deal with it to a certain extent. Otherwise, they will have a problem in the future", says Kroth. It is unlikely that digital processes will become analogue again in the years to come. It would therefore be reasonable always to offer people an alternative.

Since it is unrealistic to want to reach all people with offers like the smartphone café. GoldenMe is trying, for example, with flyers and a presence in magazines. At the same time, the association relies on cooperation with institutions such as the Information Office for Specific Needs and Senior Citizens (BiBSS) in Esch/Alzette. The personal contact of social workers, for example, proves to be a central factor when it comes to overcoming one's own inhibitions to ask someone for advice.

But there are also people who reject help from the outset. Men are often reluctant. There are also limits, for example when senior citizens have specific questions about their bank's online banking. In Kroth's opinion, it is the responsibility of the banks themselves to help their customers. Nevertheless, a basic course on e-banking, developed by ErwuesseBildung, the Maison des Associations and GoldenMe, already exists.

Kroth appreciates the first national action plan and calls it a "step in the right direction". It is important to get an overview of the existing offers and to identify further needs. But there is always room for improvement.

Kroth welcomes, for example, the plans of the Ministry for Digitalisation to create an interdisciplinary forum. There is already an exchange between the actors today. But a platform would enable more structured cooperation.

Digital inclusion is also an issue for Erik Goerens. The Service Formation Adultes (SFA) in the Ministry of Education, which he heads, oversees developing a kind of digital basic education. The courses are to teach how to use tablets, laptops and desktop PCs, and common steps such as filling out forms, writing emails, web searches and raising awareness of the dangers on the internet. According to Goerens, the aim is to "take away people's fear" when using information technology devices.

These courses, like basic education in reading, writing and arithmetic, are to be free of charge. The plan is to offer basic digital training from September. It is important to "pick up people where they live". Regional offers are the keyword here. For the existing basic education courses, the SFA is already working with various lyceums to be able to use their premises. The Service Formation Adultes will approach the municipalities with which conventions already exist as soon as the programme is ready, Goerens assures. In the future, the department will also work more closely with ErwuesseBildung to create synergies.

More advanced digitisation courses are also on offer but will be subject to a fee. The regular rate will be three euros per hour. Asylum seekers or Revis recipients may be eligible for a reduced rate of ten euros per course.

However, there is no specific target group for basic digital education. The courses are aimed at "every adult who lives here in the country". There is a wide range of age groups and social milieus.