Tailored support key to digital inclusion, Barcelona pilot finds
Providing people with devices and connectivity is important to close digital access gaps but training support makes the real difference, according to the conclusions of a pilot carried out by Barcelona City Council.
The Connectem pilot involved almost 350 people in the Trinitat Nova neighbourhood of the Nou Barris district, which is one of Barcelona’s lowest-income areas and was hit hard by unemployment during the pandemic.
The results of the trial will help to inform a city-wide digital inclusion policy.
Following the pilot which included the provision of connectivity where needed, devices, and support from ICT agents, the use of email and related tools increased by 30 percent. Uptake of online learning increased by 20 percent, and the percentage of users who did not monitor their children’s activities and homework through online devices fell from 43 percent to 24 percent.
Of the 348 participants, 72 percent were women and 50 percent were unemployed. People from over 30 nationalities took part. Although most participants already had an internet connection at home before starting the project, 84 percent did not have a computer.
The pilot followed a survey carried out in autumn 2020 which revealed that Barcelona’s connectivity gap has narrowed significantly since 2016 but it also highlighted the nuances that still need to be addressed, with age, income and education found to affect online access and use.
At the time, Laia Bonet, Barcelona’s Deputy Mayor, stressed that these are important gaps to close as use of the internet is becoming “almost an obligation, not a choice” in society.
This was highlighted during the pandemic when low-income families struggled more to work and study remotely due to lack of access to enough devices, adequate connectivity, or the necessary training.
“Digital inequalities amplify social inequalities,” she said.
Barcelona’s pilot evaluation concludes that: “The figure of the ICT agent has been one of the key elements of the project.”
It found that as well as helping participants access digital services that are important to them, “the ICT agent has also been fundamental in detecting situations of vulnerability associated with other inequalities that transcend the digital sphere.”
“In the design of future interventions or services, the figure of the ICT agent must be present in all phases,” the report says.
Paula Boet Serrano, digital rights project manager for Barcelona City Council, told Cities Today that another takeaway from the trial was the importance of tailoring training and support to individuals.
“Implementing this needs-based approach so that people can choose what they want to work on has been super successful,” she commented, noting that learning to use email, for example, is not necessarily an immediate priority for everyone.
A personalised approach helps to build dignity and autonomy, she said.
A major finding was that the donation of connectivity and devices by private companies would not be scalable long-term. The city is now considering a loan scheme for laptops and hotspots via community centres and libraries, where support would also be available.
In addition, the pilot highlighted the need to establish processes for identifying people at risk of digital exclusion, including through existing social services.
“It’s also very important to have everyone, all the different types of stakeholders, on board,” said Serrano.
Around 30 parties were involved in the pilot, including telecommunications firms, hardware and software companies, voluntary organisations, and neighbourhood representatives.
Serrano said without this collaboration, policies that look good on paper may not work in practice.
She added: “I think that’s a pretty unusual approach to take for an innovation or smart city department, but it’s interesting and I think it’s the way forward.”
This article first appeared in Cities Today.