The Digital Divide – How Citizens Lives Are Impacted & What Can Be Done

Building ethics into design and implementation, combining code and the public good, that’s what it should be about.

Jeff Hamilton

3 Minutes

December 6, 2021

Whether it be an Indigenous community, a low-income household, or a rural northern community, our digital divide is very real here and globally, and needs all of our support. From government to business, from healthcare to grass-roots community support and volunteers, we all have a role to play.

Digital Divide 101

Let’s start with an understanding of what the digital divide actually is. In simple terms, it’s a challenge faced around the world in almost every country. There is a significant gap between people who have and do not have, access to the internet and technology tools (eg: mobile devices, computers) required to access the important and critical information available online.

What’s the big deal, some ask?

It means those Indigenous, low-income, rural communities and others can’t easily access the information many of us are privileged to have and take for granted. As the global pandemic spread rapidly, just think about how reliant we became on the internet and the devices we accessed the online world from. If people are on the wrong side of the digital divide, they faced even more challenges trying to gain access to healthcare, for kids to participate in online classes and education, to stay in touch with family and friends, and for the simple access to urgent care or other emergency services.

The gap is real

As recent as September 2021, First Nations Technology Council, a not-for-profit based in North Vancouver reported that only 25% of Indigenous communities in British Columbia met the standard minimum high-speed broadband of 50 Mbps download speed and 10 Mbps upload speed. Most Indigenous communities do not have a local library, for a moment, just think about that combined with limited or no internet access as part of the digital divide. By increasing funding to these communities as noted by Jeff Burnham from the National Reading Campaign, “libraries strengthen opportunities by improving skills, social cohesion, and standards of living”. This is a strong example of how a digital divide is damaging the growth and well-being of many communities. The logistics and costs of adding a library to a rural community simply don't work, and this places the burden of solving this challenge into an online-based solution.

We need the next step, now

In Canada, the Federal government has committed $7.2 billion dollars towards a new broadband infrastructure for all Canadians. This includes goals that 98% of Canadians will have high-speed Internet access by 2026, and 100% will have access by 2030. The Feds are also partnering with each Province and Territory on regional goals as well, as the needs, landscape, and uniqueness of different areas have been taken into consideration. This past August 2021, the government of Canada and the B.C. government with Lisa Beare, B.C.’s Minister of Citizens’ Services, announced over $17.3 million in funding for 4 projects that will bring high-speed Internet to over 2,000 households in the Cariboo regional district and Indigenous communities of the Thompson-Nicola regional district in rural British Columbia.

Good corporate citizenship matters

On the corporate side, organizations like telecom giant TELUS are stepping up with their Connecting Canada for Good program, helping to tackle the challenges of bridging digital divides to ensure all Canadians have access to the communication networks and internet, including rural, remote, and Indigenous communities. TELUS’s Internet for Good is supporting school children, low-income families and seniors, youth aging out of care, and people with disabilities.

In New York, Howard Pyle the Founder & CEO of ExperienceFutures.org is trying to create new approaches and tools to help. In partnership with some heavy hitters like IBM, they also are gaining traction and visibility internationally with people like Amit Sen, a human rights expert at the United Nations. Elon Musk has even entered the space with Starlink, and one of his goals is to deliver high-speed broadband internet via satellite, to places where access has been unreliable, too expensive, or completely unavailable.

In Toronto, Betty Ferreira is a thought leader in the non-profit sector in Canada, with part of her focus on modernizing the business models of social purpose through strategic, digital and financial transformation. Betty’scompany Goodcasting has a purpose of inspiring government, corporations and non-profits to adopt business models, values, and mindsets that will accelerate a future of good for humanity.

In our day-to-day world, we are trying to empower government and industry to make better buying decisions around digital services, which directly ties into the digital divide. Innovative, agile development approaches allow us to iterate alongside the government, in partnership, using the progressive enhancement strategy, which is a web design approach that places an emphasis on web content first, allowing everyone to access the basic content and functionality of a web page. Websites and other digital services for citizens must function on any desktop or operating system and on multiple versions of mobile devices.

At the end of the day, we realize this write-up isn't going to solve the problem, but we need to continue to expand this important conversation. A digital formula that includes evidence + low-risk policy + ethics = a meaningful outcome. Building ethics into design and implementation, combining code and the public good, that’s what it should be about. We are trying. What are you doing?