Exploring the Digital Divide with Helen Milner OBE.
We recently had the opportunity to chat with Helen Milner OBE.
- Helen Milner
- 31 mins
Tom: Hello and welcome to Episode 16 of the Make Things Better Podcast, today I am joined by Helen Milner OBE, CEO of the Good Things Foundation, so thanks so much for joining us today Helen, how are you doing?
Helen: I'm really good thank you. Yeah.
Tom: Yeah that's good to hear, thank you for coming on.
So I'm really keen to hear about your background first of all because that's going to tie in to what we're going to talk about today, which is mostly the digital divide, how attitudes have transformed over the last 30 years or so. So do you want to start off by telling us a little bit more about you and your background?
Helen: Well, I started working in the internet in 1986, so a very long time ago. And it's interesting because throughout my whole career I've worked in the internet. I never really viewed it as a special thing. I knew that other people didn't know about it or didn't get it, but it was just the thing I did and the thing I was passionate about.
From the beginning that was about creating content. So this is pre world wide web. So this is content in a walled garden if you like. It was part of the times group and it was for schools and I was like in charge of that content and aggregating that content to put it in that walled garden for schools.
And then I moved to the University of Sunderland, before that I did a stint in Australia doing something similar in Australian schools. I've also had a contract with the equivalent of BT in Japan, so just to sort of show how premature I was, I met someone at a conference who was doing a Ph.D. at Stanford University and he described a search engine to me.
That's what they were doing for their Ph.D. I was like 'Why do you want that? Why would you need that? Don't you know everything that's on the internet? So, I was having those conversations with people who were thinking about things like search engines.
Tom: So this was really early on wasn't it, this was as you say before the world wide web?
Helen: Yeah so obviously the world wide web came in the late eighties, early nineties, it was really beginning to be usable fully. At that time I was at the University of Sunderland and we'd established a unit called the learning and development unit which was pretty transformational about how do we change the way that students at university... how teaching and learning changes and how technology can support that.
The important thing about my career and how it is relevant to the digital divide, is that it's always been about how people use it. It's not been about the technology.
Helen: So I'm not a techie, although I can hold my own with techies having done it for 30 years.
But I've always been really excited about what the technology can achieve, but it's always been with people at the heart of it. I moved to Sheffield to set up the learn direct Ufi which is like an online college. And then that led me to online ventures and to establishing The Good Things Foundation.
Tom: Yeah so where did the actual passion come from to get involved in technology and how people use it?
Helen: I think I was always excited about the fact that you could reach so many people and that you can collaborate. So even back in the eighties when I was creating content, I didn't want flat content, so I didn't just want it to be about what content can aggregate and put onto my instance, if you like, of the internet.
I actually brought together schoolchildren to collaborate with one another. I did something called world tour where I brought children together from around the world. And they went and did it over eight weeks, a kind of 80 days kind of concept.
So these kids could then learn about how it's different living in Doncaster, to living in Paris to living in Alaska, to living in the outback in Australia. And these kids were doing this collaboratively on a collaborative platform that we had created on our website, I guess you would call it.
Tom: So was that the first time that children had interacted with each other via the internet from across the world then?
Oh definetely, so I was told by some teachers that some of the kids were really upset, like this kid cried in class because he didn't have a passport and didn't think he'd be able to to go on this tour.
So conceptually they didn't realize that they weren't actually going anywhere. So the fact that they could interact with children in other countries over the internet and for it to be so live. I mean imagine in those days, I actually lived in Australia at the end of the 1980's and it cost £5 to make a phone call.
If you wanted to correspond with friends and family, you wrote a letter, put it in the post and it might arrive a week or two later. So this was instant communication across the whole globe. I mean, the funny thing is, obviously getting on now, but I sometimes meet people through work who were one of those kids.
So we also did something with John Craven's newsround which was like an Election Day. So we had kids all over the country online, doing sort of elections within their schools and then sending their results in. It was live on the BBC and we could look at what the results were of the kids that were voting compared to their parents.
And I have met adults who took part in the world tour and also in John Craven's newsround election day.
Tom: That's amazing, it must be so interesting to hear about their stories and to kind of reminisce those times from the past.
Helen: I think so, and also like you're saying it's the first time that they've ever been on the internet. And it's the first time that they've ever really felt that power of interacting with other people as well, in that synchronous way of doing it in real time.
We have also got to remember that this was in times when they definitely wouldn't have been searching for like 'What is the weather going to be like today?'. The internet wasn't even an information tool a this point and they were using it as a collaboration tool.
Tom: Did you ever envisage the internet getting as big as it is now? Like could you even fathom that back then?
Helen: Yeah, definitely. So I've got a little anecdote, so when my son was born in 1995, of course I can remember this because it was September 1995 and I was sitting in my living room with some friends who had come round to see the baby. And in the corner I had a computer, because although I was on maternity leave, of course I work on the internet.
I was just online all the time for emails and to do things. And I remember one of my friends said 'Why have you got a computer? What's that for?'. And I said 'Well, it's because I work in the internet.' And she said 'Oh that's just a fad.'.
I went 'No, in the future, you'll be ordering pizzas on the internet.'. I remember the hush in the room as if I'd got baby brain as if I was a complete idiot, that I somehow had this fanciful idea that could not possibly be true.
And it's only when I think back, and for me it was so obvious that that was going to happen, but for the other people in that room it wasn't obvious to them in the same way.
So I guess by 1995 it was obvious that the internet was going to be a huge, huge thing.
Tom: Yeah. But of course for some people today, they're still exluded from that, so do you want to tell us a bit about the Good Things Foundation and what that's all about?
Helen: Yeah, so the Good Things Foundation we're a digital inclusion charity, based in Sheffield.
We work all across the UK. We just turned Ten in December.
Helen: Thank you, it's all good, it's a real achievement, surviving ten years.
Tom: Yeah that is quite impressive.
Helen: Four years ago we set up a subsidiary in Australia?
Tom: Did you set it up in Australia because you had been there before?
Helen: Yeah, I mean, partly, I think it's because I had that understanding of the culture I think, but also because we had done a lot of work with the government in the UK and the Australian federal government recognised that track record and recognised what we have achieved.
So we are national and international. We work with thousands of organsiations up and down the country and we help them to reach digitally excluded people and we support them with devices, with connectivity and the support through that network.
And we have an online learning platform called learn online. So everything we do for people and for community organizations is free and we fund that by working with the big donors or corporates or government departments.
Tom: Yeah so there is probably an obvious answer to this, but why is it important that people are included in digital?
Helen: Well, I guess it's really interesting that we've been talking about the history, right? Because I've always seen that pathway for the internet, so even back in the eighties, taking kids from disadvantaged communities on a tour around the world that they possibly could never do without the internet and possibly still couldn't do without the internet, but the opportunities and the benefits of using the internet are so huge.
And I think sometimes for those of us who use the internet just instinctively every single day. I don't think we really understand how powerful that is for us.
That if you are not online, you can't apply for work really, you can't apply for benefits. We helped so many people during the pandemic. So we helped 22,000 people with a device, data and support and some of them needed to apply for work.
Some of them needed to apply for their health, apply for medicine. Do online consultations with medical professionals. But every single person that we've helped, they said the main thing they needed was contact with other people. So actually we definitely use it for information, we definitely use it for transactions, services are much more efficient, much more convenient, but actually that fundamental contact.
I once met a woman who told me, she lives in Rotherham actually and her mum lives in Grimsby, and they saw each other for the first time on Mother's Day over the internet, so quite often we talk about people who have relatives in Australia.
But sometimes if you don't have a lot of money, if you don't own a car and you don't have public transport, sometimes those connections can be as little as a couple of hundred miles. So people just massively take it for granted. And the other thing that happened during the pandemic was so many services, public services, commercial offers, even the services that charities provided went online because that was the easiest and sometimes the only way to deliver it.
So if you are not online, you don't have a device, you can't afford internet, you don't have the skills to use it, then you are just cut off from that.
Tom: Yeah so this is a bit of a more abstract question in a way but do you think people are more or less connected now in the world because of the internet?
Helen: With one another?
Helen: I think they are more connected.
But I think behind your question maybe is the fact that we have a digital divide and as that digital divide narrows, it deepens, so the people who are left behind are left further behind. So if everybody who's designing services, whose designing products whose designing fancy new tools.
If they're not understanding that there are people who are cut off from them then it's like they are invisible, actually. And I think before the pandemic we mostly worked around skills.
We helped community organizations help local digitally excluded people get those basic digital skills to thrive in the world. But as soon as the pandemic struck, like in March 2020, we realized that once those physical places like community centers, those libraries, those small local charities had to close their doors, then they no longer have access to the internet.
And so the need to have a personal device, be it a phone or a tablet or a laptop and then that connection to the internet became so, so critical.
So that was invisible to me. I didn't know that there were so many millions of people who relied on those public internet spots or those community services that actually just do the basics of the internet.
Tom: How do you go about discovering that? Because for me I just like, I feel like I'm very oblivious to the fact that so many people are not part of the internet because obviously on the internet, you would never see anyone not on the internet, of course you wouldn't because that's impossible.
So how do you go about finding out a lot of people are only using the internet in like libraries and so on?
Helen: So I think that's why I love the model that we've had, because we work with thousands of different organisations absolutely in the heart of their community.
So they don't work at local authority level, they work at street level, they know those people on the street. They may be a small local charity working with local older people or local people with a second language or people who have a disability, or just the general community center that reflects the people in that community so they know that there are people who are already potentially using their services who are digitally excluded.
And so we always think that digital inclusion or the activity of helping people get those skills and to get that access is best when it's embedded in the work that you're doing.
I think though you're right. I mean, I sometimes think of it as a bit like a ghetto. If you think about your family and friends, your colleagues, everybody's on the internet. Therefore that's why I find that I'm really lucky to go and visit these communities and I can talk to people who don't have the internet.
Before the pandemic I was in a community center with a really amazing charity in South London and there were 13 people there who were using the service, using Learn My Way, having a really great time learning about the internet.
And I asked them, 'How many of you have a phone, a mobile phone?'. Three of them had a phone and they got them out of their pocket and showed me, only one of them was a smartphone. So this was 2019.
Thirteen people, three with a phone, only one had a smartphone. I said, 'Do any of you have a laptop, a computer or a tablet or anything like that? And the woman who had a smartphone, also had a laptop. So twelve people had nothing and one woman had a smartphone and she also had a laptop.
And so that's the thing, I was still shocked. This is my job. This is what I live and breathe every single day. And I was still shocked that what a small percentage of those thirteen people had any kind of device and affordability is a massive issue.
Tom: Yeah. And do you find that usually those who are excluded and are not using digital already, do you think most of them want to or do you come across people who actually have chosen not to?
Helen: Well, the data says that about 42% of the people who aren't using the internet say that they are not interested and it's not for them.
We did do some other research to get under the hood of that, and we found that trust is quite a big issue, they don't trust it. There's quite a lot on the news about identity theft and financial risks.
But that still means that more than half want to, right? And that again is the beauty of The Good Things Foundation because we work with communities who can reach those people. And again, for people who are digitally excluded, 65% of them say that they would get help if they knew it was there. And 35% say they want local support.
So actually, it feels like the perfect solution really because actually they want local support if they knew it was there, we have local support and more than half of those people want to learn.
Tom: Yeah. So some of the main barriers then is obviously money that's going to be one of the main ones but then also the trust and then the education.
And I guess for a lot of people if you don't have the money already and you're a little bit less trusting of it. Then you've got two really strong reasons not to. You're not going to have the luxury to even take the risk and take a chance on something.
Helen: Yeah. Well, one thing that we did during lockdowns, and I think this is what I'm really passionate about now is the bundle of the device, the connectivity and the support all together. So during lockdowns we helped thousands of people who've never used the internet before, because we could say here is a tablet, it has a SIM card in it, that connects you to the internet, here's a local person who can support you. There name is X and that person X actually comes to your door, puts it on your doorstep, takes a step back, rings the bell, has a social distance conversation, then says I'll give you a call.
Or just what will happen is it will buzz, press yess and off you go. What our local community partners were doing was actually teaching people how to use the internet. From the very first time they ever touched the device, they were on Zoom they were using Zoom to learn how to use the internet.
So again, pre-pandemic, we would have said that was impossible to do, but actually they were getting really intensive, informative support with that device, by bringing that package together. We're now working with Virgin Media, O2, Vodafone and Three and by them coming together and creating a national data bank, we've got half a million SIM's, so we've got half a million people who can get free connectivity through that.
So now we're calling on company to give us their old kit, their old devices, their old technology, so we can bundle that together and get it out to digitally excluded people in communities.
And our biggest problem is we know the demand is so huge. We've got to get those devices out of those corporate cupboards and draws and get those refurbished into the hands of the people who need them because we know that demand is still so, so high. And it really has to be met.
And it just feels like, the UK's the fifth wealthiest country in the world for all our politicians tell us, we should be able to support those people who can't afford it with good quality, I'm not talking about rubbish quality, pre-loved technology, the connectivity through our national data bank and that support through our national digital inclusion network.
Tom: Yeah definetely. And you mentioned there about, you know, there is a lot of people in this country who probably want, well, they just are on way lower standards of living then others because there's huge inequality here. So who would you say is the most digitally excluded? Because I think there is a bit of a misconception, that it's just old people who aren't using tech?
Helen: Yeah that's right. I mean, some older people are, but there's a massive correlation in the UK between household income and digital inclusion.
So even if you're an older person than if you, for example, have a decent household income or even if you're a woman in your eighties and you've got a university degree, 99%, will be on the internet.
So the correlation between education attainment and household income is actually much more important than age. Having said all of that, clearly we've got older people who have low incomes. We've got 2 billion in pension credit that's not been claimed. So that means there are pensioners all over the country who are eligible, because their income is so low to get a pension credit benefit from the state but don't claim it, so for them buying broadband may well feel out of their reach, even if they wanted to do that.
The older you are obviously obviously you didn't do it at school and you may not have even done it throughout your career, so they might feel the barrier to entry is much higher for them.
And also, you know, the fact is that if you are in your seventies and eighties and you've never used the internet, any you've got a pretty good life already, like you are happy, then it probably feels like 'well why would I bother?'.
And you can kind of think well if you're happy and you've got everything that you need? I mean I think I'd always say that there are benefits for you. One chat we had with a digital champion, he got online when he was 91. And it made such a massive difference to him, he became a real evangelist and he was out encouraging his friends and family and everyone at the golf course to get on the internet. So, you know, it's never too late to learn.
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, that's a great story that you've got someone who's 91 still getting on the internet, I guess. Yeah you're never too late to get involved.
Helen: But when you bring the devices in with them as well, clearly a lot of it is about affordability.
So it's important to understand that that is the underpinning reason for digital exlusion. People who are disabled are also more likely than people who are not disabled to not use the internet but again, also if you are disabled you are more likely to not have a job so these things are compounded. The intersectionality of different disadvantages, talking about benefits, if you're on a low income from a disadvantaged community - you're much more likely to experience health inequality.
The government is spending billions on digital health services, but actually the people who are most likely to need them the most are more likely to be digitally excluded.
So it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out therefore investment in digital inclusion will actually help to realize the benefits and investment in digital services.
Tom: Yeah. And I imagine investment in digital inclusion is just going to really contribute to equality.
Helen: Yes. Well, absolutely, I mean, I'm with you on that. We definitely have the economic arguments.
So we know that investment in full digital inclusion for every pound spent we get £14.80 return.
Tom: Not bad then.
Helen: Not bad at all. So, you know the economic arguments are there.
But, I believe that it's now a case of equity. If you want to be on the internet to be the same as everyone else, that is just a basic equity issue.
Some people say that the internet should be a human right or should be treated like a utility, so they are some of the things that we're actually exploring. We have a data poverty lab.
And we've just actually launched a search for some fellowships. So one of those is actually should the internet be treated like a utility or a human right or something else?
So that's really exciting. So we are looking for people to apply for those fellowships now.
Yeah, that's really interesting because if we look back to how this conversation started you were talking about how you were being dismissed by saying that people will be ordering pizza through the internet in the future.
And now it's like almost becoming a human right, which is incredible. So over the last 30 or even like 40 years, how have attitudes towards the internet changed, obviously we've touched on this a little bit but what have been some of the things that you have seen in your time?
Helen: Well, even if I just think career wise, 20 years ago when the sort of the concept of having a place in every community where people could go to use the internet, this was a policy, politician desire is that only a third of people used the internet. So this is 20 years ago right.
Tom: It's not even that long ago.
Helen: No, not even that long ago so only a third of people used the internet.
Also at that time it was really expensive so you couldn't buy a computer for less than £1,000. So it was also the market wasn't really there.
So the internet is almost invisible now.
People use it on the go, use it at home on their smart TV, use it on your mobile, your it on your Google Assistant. Use it obviously at work, to send out your podcast, the internet is everywhere.
We almost don't talk about it because it feels so ubiquitous. But, actually to understand that it's ubiquitous in availability and I am sure that people in rural areas will tell us that it's not ubiquitous, that they still don't have choices and in some places it's not very good.
But actually it feels ubiquitious so therefore we are excluding people from it, because actually, if we're designing our society with the assumption that everybody is able to use the internet in many different ways, with mobile and with smart devices than actually we are just leaving people further and further behind if we don't understand that either we have a duty as a society to pay for people to be on the internet if they can't afford it or we are just blind to the fact it is such a big problem.
Tom: Yeah, I suppose, as people have started to take it for granted and it's just becoming obviously a subconscious habit to use the internet almost all the time now for a lot of people. And because it is becoming invisible, I guess it then becomes a lot, lot easier to forget about the ways in which we are excluding people.
And I'm sure that there's so many ways that people are creating things in the world and setting things up and just being completely oblivious to the fact that some people just won't ever see this stuff and won't ever take part in it.
And even with this podcast, there will be people out there who will never have the opportunity to even watch this. Whether they'd even want to or not, they probably wouldn't want to but if they wouldn't to they wouldn't have the opportunity. And this is something that would never really even like cross my consciousness really until this conversation.
So it's really good to kind of get that message out there.
Helen: I think the good news is that people who are designing your doctor's surgery or I was interviewed recently by like Yours Magazine recently which will go into the hands of older women mostly, is that that there are people who do see and understand that there are digitally excluded people in the world.
Tom: Well everyone at the Good Things Foundation Clearly.
Helen: Yeah everyone at the Good Things Foundation.
And I think that as long as we keep them in mind, I mean, obviously, as we've been talking that I'm very excited about the potential of the internet, the potential to bring huge benefits and huge opportunities to people and I just don't want to leave anybody behind really. And that's what my mission is.
Tom: Yeah, it's great that you've got that mission because it is such an important one and as you said, it really correlates with equality in general which is such a huge thing. So my final question for you and it's been great having you is what can people do to make things better and you can interpret this however you like?
Helen: Well, number one is know that people exist who don't use the internet. There is 10 million people who don't have the skills to use the internet in any kind of functional way. There is at least 2 million people who can't afford to be online and can't an internet connection.
Tom: So that's in the UK?
Helen: That's in the UK, yeah.
So just know that they are there.
If anyone is designed services, keep them in mind. But my real rally and what I would say is search out the Good Things Foundation and help us to get the people who want to be online online because that's the best way that we will close the digital divide and make sure that everybody who wants to be and everybody who is able to can actually have that opportunity and enjoy and beneift from using it.
Tom: Absolutely. Thank you so much for your time I really do appreciate it, thank you to everyone watching or listening, and I do hope you have an amazing rest of your day.
Subscribe and keep up to date.
Each episode is available to stream from: