Researchers form Melbourne’s Swinburne University of Technology are developing a detailed picture of how Australians use the Internet to access essential services to help policy makers assist those left behind by the digital revolution.
The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) is the nation’s first comprehensive assessment of the digital divide — the gap between people who have unhindered access to information and communications technology, those who have partial access, and those who are excluded.
The three-year project, initiated by Australia’s largest telco, Telstra, is led by Professor Julian Thomas and Dr Scott Ewing at the Swinburne Institute for Social Research in collaboration with Professor Jo Barraket at Swinburne’s Centre for Social Impact. The project brings the Institute for Social Research’s experience in researching the social, political and economic impact of the Internet, along with the Centre for Social Impact’s unique expertise in designing responses to complex social problems.
“Digital inclusion is the degree to which people participate in the digital economy, accessing services, business and education online,” Professor Thomas says.
In Australia 90 per cent of households are online, and as Professor Thomas explains, “most people look at that number and think that is great.”
What concerns Professor Thomas is that while 10 years ago not having an email address could be a hassle, with so many essential services now online, the cost of not being connected is much higher today.
“The digital divide has narrowed but it has deepened,” he says.
In the six months since the project was launched, there have been consultations with stakeholders including Indigenous groups, charities such as the Smith Family, public libraries, government departments and local councils.
Professor Thomas says these consultations have identified four key measures to be included in the index: access, affordability, users’ online activity and digital literacy levels.
The first iteration of the index, based on publicly available data, is due to be completed in July. Telstra may also contribute information.
The project has also established a website to generate input during the consultation period, which will be updated as data is collected and made public.
The team also hopes to present a breakdown of information for regional areas, so organisations such as local governments can map areas of digital disadvantage within their areas to direct assistance more specifically.
Once the index is public, Professor Thomas believes it will help inform debate on how to bridge the digital divide. “If we are able to provide an aggregate measure then we can use that to gauge the effect and understand what really helps,” he says.
Robert Morsillo, Telstra’s Senior Advisor on Digital Inclusion, says the collaboration came from a growing realisation that digital disadvantage is a multifaceted issue and could not be solved by the telecommunications industry alone.
“We hope the index will shine a spotlight on areas where we can most effectively invest resources where there needs to be intervention, to increase the overall level of inclusion,” he says.