Australia is experiencing the rapid digital transformation of economic, government, cultural and social systems due to the physical distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. Under these conditions, we are seeing an amazing upswing in digital creativity. However, physical distancing is also amplifying the impacts of the existing digital divide on social inequalities. On top of this, the demand for rapid digital transformation is generating uneven outcomes for organisations. Addressing digital inequality at both the personal and organisational level has never been more important.
Digital Transformation and Personal Digital Inequality
Latest data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics shows more than 2.5 million Australians are not online.[i]
While the number of offline Australians has fallen over time[ii]
, effectively narrowing the digital divide, the increasingly central role of the internet as a medium for everyday exchange, information-sharing, and access to essential services, has deepened the disadvantages of being offline. In accelerating the process of digital transformation, the COVID-19 crisis has further exacerbated this disadvantage.
The extent of digital exclusion is not adequately captured by simply considering the 2.5 million offline Australians. Understanding who these Australians are and getting them online is important, but the ability of internet users to reap the social and economic benefits of being online is also determined by the effectiveness
of their internet access and the skills
they have in using the internet.
These three key dimensions – access, affordability and abilities – form the basis of the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII).[iii]
The index generates a more complex picture of personal digital inequality and provides an important insight into who is likely to be most impacted by the digital transformation stimulated by the COVID-19 crisis.
The ADII shows that digital inequality follows distinct geographic, demographic, and socio-economic contours. In summary, rural Australians, older Australians, members of low-income households, people with low educational attainment, those not in the labour force, Indigenous Australians and Australians with disability all record substantially lower than average ADII scores. [iv]
In the context of the COVID-19 crisis and the governmental response to it, each of these digitally disadvantaged groups will face distinct challenges. One group we are particularly concerned about is older Australians (those aged 65 and over).
Older people have a higher risk of developing severe health complications from COVID-19 and have been advised to be extra vigilant in ensuring they physically isolate themselves. Given their vulnerability, it is likely they will be advised to continue such isolation even after restrictions are lifted for others.
Sadly, older Australians are more likely to lack the effective and affordable internet access and digital abilities that would enable them to use existing and emerging online services that others are drawing on to reduce the hardships generated by physical isolation—such as online retail, telehealth, video calling and digitised events and cultural collections.
While their basic needs, such as shopping, can be addressed with offline assistance from friends and family, digitally excluded older Australians will lose access to the formal and informal social and cultural activities that are fundamental to reducing social isolation. This is a serious concern, given the clear link between social isolation and the mental and physical health of older Australians.[v]
Digital Transformation and Organisational Digital Inequality
As citizen and consumer needs migrate further online due to COVID-19, so organisations must respond by offering digital services and distribution channels. While this forced digital uptake may provide some benefits for organisations longer-term, it is also placing extreme demands on organisations that are themselves digitally disadvantaged. Digital capabilities and the adoption of technology remains relatively low among Australia’s small to medium businesses.[vi]
For those at the coalface of emergency response, it is notable that only 20 per cent of Australian charities feel they are currently using digital technologies well, with lack of human and financial resources seen as the key barriers.[vii]
On a positive note, it is heartening to observe some digital inclusion intermediaries, corporate organisations and skilled staff who have been temporarily stood down offering their resources to grow and supplement the digital capacity of small business and for-purpose organisations.
Because of the physical distancing measures instigated in response to the COVID-19 pandemic we are witnessing the rapid and widespread digital transformation of Australian society. While digital transformation has long been an objective of the Australian government and a range of business sectors due to the efficiencies it can generate, the speed with which this is now occurring is generating very uneven outcomes for organisations and people.
For the digitally excluded – people lacking effective and affordable internet access and digital skills – the transition is deepening social inequality. Given the loss of income suffered by those who have lost work and businesses as a result of the crisis, the number of digitally excluded may rise, widening the divide itself.
Without an immediate and coordinated response from governments and telcos, a widening and deepening digital divide will generate serious social and economic harm. It is also likely to persist once the pandemic is over since many of the systems and practices transferred online are likely to remain digitally mediated. Responses should include:
- Financial and technical support for small to medium enterprises and charities to transition to online delivery
- Financial assistance and payment freezes to ensure people suffering loss of income remain digitally connected
- Targeted support packages to assist older Australians to obtain digital devices, get online and obtain the basic skills to alleviate some of the harms caused by physical isolation.
ABS, 2018, Household Use of Information Technology, Australia, 2016-17, Cat 8146.0, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Canberra, 28 March.
Thomas, J, Wilson, CK & Park, S, 2018, 'Australia’s digital divide is not going away', The Conversation
, 29 March.
Thomas, J, Barraket, J, Wilson, CK, Ewing, S & MacDonald, T, 2019, Measuring Australia’s Digital Divide: The Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2019
, RMIT University for Telstra, Melbourne.
Defined in the ADII as people receiving either the disability support pension (DSP) from Centrelink, or the disability pension from the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2019, Social isolation and loneliness
[Online], Canberra, AIHW, Available: https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-welfare/social-isolation-and-loneliness
; Pate, A, 2014, Social isolation: its impact on the mental health and wellbeing of older Victorians
, Victorian Council on the Ageing, Melbourne
Crittall, Marie, Katie McDonald, Myles McGregor-Lowndes, Wendy Scaife, Jo Barraket, Rachel Sloper and Alexandra Williamson with Christopher Baker. 2017. Giving and volunteering: the nonprofit perspective
. Giving Australia 2016
report series commissioned by the Australian Government Department of Social Services.
Brisbane, Queensland: The Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies, Queensland University of Technology, Centre for Social Impact Swinburne University of Technology, and the Centre for Corporate Public Affairs.
Small Business Digital Taskforce (2018) Report to Government March 2019
. Online at https://www.industry.gov.au/data-and-publications/small-business-digital-taskforce-report-to-government