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Digital inclusion doesn't need an app.

Do you use an iPhone? Android? How about an old Nokia? Do your kids tell you what happens on Facebook? Do you have more account profiles than pairs of socks because you create a new one every time you replace your broken phone? Do you get your internet from Ronald McDonald?

This is the reality for many citizens.

Digital inclusion was very important in public policy discussions about 10 years ago. As Government and the big banks looked to save money by digitising face to face services there was an attempt to bring everyone on the journey and make sure that we could all use email. But have things moved on since then?

Sometimes it can feel like government and not for profit services create apps for apps sake. Other times it can feel like the pace of change is so slow that no one realises we've moved on from carbon paper. In an attempt to be inclusive we've simultaneously forgotten to include anyone that doesn't work like us and also included to the point of being stagnant and doing nothing. So what is the right approach?

Digital inclusion is partly about supporting everyone to be able to access and create information digitally and partly about designing with the assumption that not everyone is going to be able to access the internet. These two ideas coexist and although they might seem at odds with each other are really two sides of the same coin.

Digital inclusion can cover everything from access to a device that works to being able to afford the internet, access to education to learn how to code and well designed government and not for profit services that provide services that are easy to use and take into consideration the reality of digital access and everything in between. There are few places in the world that are getting this right, particularly for the most marginalised.

Chattanooga, Tennessee is an amazing exception. Driven by an understanding that the Internet is a commodity as important as electricity the city of Chattanooga has been leading the USA (if not the world) for digital inclusion for many years now. Their approach is proving itself as a lever for economic development, but the digital inclusion it is creating is laying the foundation for intergenerational wealth creation at an unprecedented scale.

The broadband network is the fastest in the United States, but the fairness of the scheme is what makes it special;

"By owning the broadband network, the city is able to make it more inclusive as well. Last summer, when students had to attend school online, Chattanooga offered free internet access to 17,000 low-income families and their 30,000 or so children. “The city paid the cost of building the network out to these homes, and they offered 10 years of service free at 100 megabits per second,” said Christopher Mitchell, who heads efforts to expand broadband access at an advocacy group called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “I’d say it’s the only place in the US where there’s no digital divide, although of course that’s a complicated term.”"

The opportunity to include citizens and promote digital equality is not just to make sure that no one gets left behind or to take advantage of the economic benefits of the internet (although they are great opportunities by themselves). The opportunity is to leverage a service delivery platform that provides opportunities to solve problems that we haven't even dreamt up yet, that are waiting to be invented.

iBobbly is an example of using technology to co-design a solution to mental health for young Aboriginal people in the Kimberley. It was designed by Aboriginal people for Aboriginal people and draws on culturally appropriate language, images and concepts to help create a new resource to help reduce suicide amongst young people.

Image of an Aboriginal young man and woman holding an iPhone with an app open.
iBobbly image taken from on 29 November 2022.

When apps or digital solutions aren't designed for and with the community that they are intended for it is quite possible that they won't meet the mark. It is important to design to meet the community for where they are right now (e.g. do they have access to a device that will have enough memory to download the app?) as well as remembering that digital solutions come in many more formats than an app. Perhaps the solution is a smart form? A paper form that is scanned? Is the solution to send a text? Is an old fashioned conversation still the best approach?

Digital inclusion requires both the cultivation of digital equality as well as designing for the current digital divide. Done well and in time, digital can be a platform to provide new and innovative services that help to make our communities stronger.

Yup Yup Labs can help you to connect to your citizens through the creation of strategies, new operational models and even app design. If you would like some help to improve the digital equality of your community please reach out.

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