EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Social Digital Research Symposium

Digital by Default News spoke to Dr Ellen Helsper, lecturer and programme director at LSE and Helen Milner, CEO at Tinder Foundation, regarding the recently held 7th Social Digital Research Symposium. We asked them why they set up the symposium and what they hope to achieve by it, as well as their thoughts on the government’s Digital by Default agenda.

What were the reasons for setting up the symposium?

Dr Helsper: I have been working on issues digital inclusion for years at the LSE and realised that it was becoming a big issue as society was growing more digital.

Helen and I both agreed that the most important thing was to bring together stakeholders from different sectors because we felt a lot of work was being done but there was not much joined up thinking.

So the initial idea was to set up the symposium to bring together these people to share the knowledge that we already have and to identify what we didn’t know and what we needed to find out to be able to get to grips with digital inclusion. We also wanted to find out what policy and the third sector could do.


7th Social Digital Research Symposium

What happened at the symposium held most recently?

Dr Helsper: It was a very unique event – we don’t know that there has been anything like it anywhere else in Europe or in the world for that matter

It bought together people from the government, Office for National Statistics, Ofcom, Oxford Internet Institute, LSE and Sheffield University amongst others.

The datasets were very varied because of where they came from but address the same issues from a slightly different angle.

The major datasets included the Labour Force Survey, the Ofcom Media literacy survey, Oxford Internet Survey and the EU kids online data set which is about internet use amongst young people in Europe.

We wanted to know what big questions are left unanswered by the reports already out there and see if we could come to some big answers.

We identified about 7 big questions that needed to be answered and we made a first attempt at answering them.

The question I worked on was regarding the direct social environment of the people who are not online or are online by proxy; what the characteristics of these users are; factors that might explain what proxy users they have access to and how this is related to drop outs – those who drop out and have other people use the internet for them.

Another question was regarding specific groups of people for instance those in social housing or social care and what makes them engage online against the odds, the outliers, people who we don’t expect to be online but are.

We also questioned if the availability of tablets and smartphones could help those most vulnerable in society to get the opportunities available on digital platforms or if there is a new kind of divide and inequality that is starting to build up around these newer platforms which have different characteristics and different types of engagement.


Dr Ellen Helsper, lecturer and programme director at LSE

Helen Milner: We have been looking at these data sets for a long while and realised that organisations (like the ones mentioned by Dr Helpser) gather a lot of data and it is all really interesting and they all support one another but what we are often told by these organisations is that the data is available on their websites but nobody downloads it.

Also, there are plenty of questions we still have about the internet regarding people who don’t use it as well as people who do, and how they use it, and the answers are often is hidden in the datasets, the findings of which need to be compared.

At the symposium, we were not meant to be able to actually bring lots of data together and ask questions of that data but what we did begin that process and we did demonstrate that bringing data sets together and asking questions and comparing was really valuable.

It was attended by really good cross section of people: Ellen and I, people from the academic sector, BT, Point Topic as well as representatives of the GDS digital inclusion team.

What are the future plans for the symposium?

Dr Helsper: After the last symposium, we have decided that by the end of this year or the start of next year, we will write a series of short reports doing further analysis on the datasets we looked at. We also want to follow up on the work the government is involved in when trying to figure out the best ways of tackling digital exclusion.

We also hope that our work can help those in the industry who are trying to provide services and products to make sure everybody has equal access to high quality cheap products and services.

On the academic side we want to see where new research is needed and which questions have not been answered from the data that is already out there while being careful not to replicate work that has already been done.

This is all going to happen over the next three to six months, we hope.

helen milner

Helen Milner, CEO at Tinder Foundation

Helen Milner: The symposium meets four times a year – twice a year face to face and twice a year online. There is also an online forum where we can make sure people keep up to speed with what’s happening in the research sector because from my point of view one of the things that I get quite frustrated by is that there is quite a lot of reinventing the wheel – a lot of people put these surveys out into the field when actually that data is already available through other datasets.

What are your thoughts on the government’s Digital by Default agenda?

Dr Helsper: I have been working in this field for a while and am constructively critical of some of the things the government has been doing. I think when the agenda first came out there was a big risk of it being beneficial mostly to people who were already quite well off, and exclude those who were most in need of having access to these service because the government were not focusing on digital inclusion and not looking at what makes citizens engage with technology in general and the barriers such as skill that stop people from accessing online services.

The good thing that we’ve seen, and a little bit of credit for this goes to the symposium and the work that we are doing, is that the discourse has shifted and now we can see that the government is realising they can’t do digital by default without thinking about digital inclusion. In that sense, it is now moving in the right direction.

There is still a risk that it focuses too much on infrastructure and accessibility in terms of design, when it should focus on the socio-econ circumstances of the people who r not online.

There is knowledge in the charity sector that will help make the agenda more effective and efficient and therefore less costly.

Helen Milner: I’m in favour of the agenda because I think that government departments and the GDS recognise that not everybody has got the digital skills that they need to access online services. As long as there is investment, money and good policymaking around the agenda and if some of the savings that are going to be made by putting government services online can be invested into helping everyone acquire digital skills, then I am all for it because of course services will be better, more convenient and simpler if they are online.

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