Nearly one in four of the UK adult population, about 12 million people, are what is termed ‘digitally excluded’. They cannot perform basic tasks on the internet. Many others might have the skills but are excluded because they cannot get on the internet: because the infrastructure isn’t there or because they can’t afford it.

The digitally excluded, about 12 million people, will get little to no benefit from some of the services that people who are brilliant at the internet are building unless they get assistance to use them.

When I talk to people about digital exclusion I find that the simple statistic that one in four UK adults, about 12 million people, cannot perform basic tasks online is astonishing to many. That is part of the reason I’m writing this blog. We should be aware of this fact.

I would like it if more people, especially those who are brilliant at the internet, realised how many people can’t use the internet and the problems that causes for all of us. If we realised that some of the clunky, old legacy services that some people complain about and think are holding the world back are also things that others rely on and can’t live without.

It would help all of us if we talked and did more about this challenge; if we reduced the number of people who can’t read this blog or the many other far better ones that are out there.

The internet is moving fast

I know the internet is moving fast and that software is eating the world. The internet has become infrastructure to many of us: especially if we live in a big city. It’s boring and invisible. We expect the internet to always be there and we get grumpy when it’s not.

People in the tech world are often dazzled by the services they use and the things they can use to build services for others. One year people are obsessed with design theory; the next, platform business models. This year it is blockchain technology. Next year it may be the impact of driverless cars.

I love the services we can use. I love the services we build for other people to use. I know that we know how to build better things this year than we could last year. I know that will be true next year and the year after.

But despite all of these advances, 12 million people can’t read this blog and they can’t use the services that brilliant people build and put on the internet.

Digital exclusion is really complex

There is no magic solution. The challenge is really complex because it’s mostly about people and people are complex.

The UK government’s digital inclusion scale from 2014.

The statistics show that the people impacted by digital exclusion are mostly old and from lower income groups. It contributes to the exclusion that these people already face. I believe some people ignore digital exclusion because of this. They think the digitally excluded will go away (“they’re all old) or that they’ll soon be able to choose to use the internet (“my service is beautiful, faster and cheaper so people will choose to use it”).

We shouldn’t be waiting to tackle this challenge, not least because there’s a further level to the challenge. Some people can use the internet but they can’t use all the internet.

Stories about this are all around us. In recent months I’ve bumped into people who work in the tech sector but can only get a pay-as-you-go mobile contract and so have limited access; people who live in rural areas with no internet coverage; people who don’t speak English well enough to use some services; people with disabilities which limit their ability to use the internet; people who are unable to afford access to the internet.

People are building new online services to help people get educated, to get a cheaper taxi, to book a holiday, to find a job, to write to their MP, to petition parliament and many other wonderful things but those services cannot be used by the digitally excluded unless there is some form of assistance.

Tackling the challenge helps all of us

There are huge benefits to getting people online. Both for the individuals and for wider society. The benefits are social, democratic and economic.

It’s possible, and often useful, to quantify those benefits. One study in 2014 put a financial value of getting someone online at £1064 per year per person “from having more confidence, making financial savings online, less boredom, opportunities to pursue hobbies, new jobseeking skills, and a reduction in social isolation”. The value increases as people become more digitally skilled and can use more of the services that are enabled by the internet. [Sentence added on 23/11] A report by two charities, Go ON UK and the Tinder Foundation, published in November 2015 showed a benefit of almost £10 for every £1 spent on basic digital skills.

Many people benefit from this value: government through increased tax revenues, companies through greater use of services, the companies people work for due to higher productivity, and the individuals themselves. To put it simply reducing digital exclusion will help grow the economy.

The digital exclusion statistics in the UK are worse than some other European Union countries. We risk damaging our digital economy as other nations become more digitally skilled than the UK.

And there would be other benefits from really tackling digital exclusion. We could start to turn off expensive legacy services and focus more of of our efforts on new digital services.

A beautiful — to me :) — but expensive bit of a legacy service, our broadcast television network. Photo by Mark Salisbury.

Where the service is supplied by our governments then we share the cost of maintaining legacy services. It is paid for from our taxes. We will make the public sector more efficient by reducing digital exclusion.

For private and third sector services sometimes we share the cost but sometimes we don’t. Taking the new internet-based taxi companies like Uber and Didi Dache as an example we can see that whilst the digitally included benefit from cheaper taxis the digitally excluded don’t. As other taxi services become more expensive and sparser due to lower demand then regulators will need to make a decision. Maybe there will be a surcharge on Uber and Didi Dache journeys to fund traditional taxis. Imagine the conflict that will generate. By reducing digital exclusion we will reduce the, ahem.., friction that the need for legacy services can cause for new internet-based services.

Tackling the digital exclusion challenge

There is no magic solution. Digital exclusion is a really hard and knotty problem to fix. The whole of the problem won’t be fixed without time and investment. [Sentence added on 23/11] And despite the compelling case for investment it may not occur due to conflicting political priorities for spend.

The digital exclusion challenge is more complex, and more focussed on individual people, but it may even need an initiative similar to the digital television switchover.

Most of the work to fix digital inclusion in this country seems to be being done by volunteers and the private sector. Our government does not have much data on its own work to address the challenge of digital exclusion. I find that slightly surprising. Parts of the UK government are brilliant at the internet. I would expect them to also be brilliant at tackling digital exclusion.

Thinking about the digitally excluded isn’t hard. You’re doing it now. But we need to keep reminding ourselves. We need to keep working to reduce the number of people affected and keep up the pressure on government and the private sector to do the same.

Simple things can help with this.

Government could openly publish data on digital exclusion and our performance in tackling the challenge: we can then hold government to account. Our tech press could write articles on digital exclusion as well as on the brilliant new services that are being built. We can include the digitally excluded in (un)conferences. Digital services could remind us that some people cannot use the service and encourage us to volunteer time to help. Digital people could talk about digital exclusion more often and think about whether they can design their services in a way that helps with the challenge.

We are not our users. If we ever forget this fundamental maxim the fact that one in four of our potential users cannot use the services we build should remind us of it. If we tackle the challenge of digital exclusion then it will reduce inequality and generate benefits us all.

Let’s keep building brilliant new services but let’s fix digital exclusion at the same time.