How can digital divides be avoided?
DINO, an acronym meaning “digitalization in a new public sphere” in Swedish, is a research group based at the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University. Mariana S. Gustafsson, Associate Professor of Political Science, is one of DINOs members. In this interview, she talks about the studies conducted by her research group and some of their findings.
Along with her DINO colleagues, Mariana studies the effects of the digitalization of public services on citizenship. How is public discourse affected? In what new ways are public services made available and how are these changes affecting citizens' abilities to act in society?
Another important part of their research is to understand which groups may risk being excluded because of this development and why.
Photo credit Charlotte Perhammar
Two research projects
In a research project that was funded by the Swedish Research Council for Health, Working Life and Welfare, she investigated the automation of decision making in Swedish municipalities, citizen centric e-services, technology mediated citizenship, and digital inclusion.
“These themes have long been an interest of mine and my colleagues, including Professor Elin Wihlborg and Associate Professor Johanna Sefyrin,” says Mariana.
Another project, ”A Digital Norrköping for all,” focused on the role of public libraries in addressing digital divides. The project, which ran from 2018 to 2020, was funded by the Norrköping research fund. Its purpose was to survey and analyse digital exclusion and the strategies employed by Norrköping Public Library for digital inclusion. The project examined challenges faced by citizens in daily life when public services were digitalized and authorities’ local offices were closing down.
Libraries as promoters of active citizenship
Studies on the kind of help people seek at libraries have shown that the difficulties they encounter when public services are digitalized affect individuals’ possibilities to participate in society and in solving daily tasks, both private and public.
”Visitors asked for help with managing contacts with private and public services, conducting everyday tasks such as booking a doctor’s appointment, paying their bills, applying for jobs, or purchasing a bus ticket.”
Society demands of us to be informed, active and responsible citizens, which involve using certain (and gradually more advanced) digital competences. But we do not always have the required skills and competences to perform as active citizens.
”For some people and in certain situations, libraries become support centres in everyday situations when devices are out of order or technologies are not accessible. Thereby, public libraries serve as promoters of active citizenship,” says Mariana.
According to Mariana Gustafsson, there is now a greater focus on the challenges associated with digitalization within both the research community and among providers of public services. Politicians and public servants show a greater awareness about these issues than previously and are willing to understand and find solutions to problems of social exclusion.
Public libraries throughout Sweden have come a long way, not least with national and local initiatives such as Digidel, where public libraries offer tech support at specific hours, and a project initiated by the National Library of Sweden focusing on users.
The project “A Digital Norrköping for all” is now concluded and has resulted in several research grant applications, new research projects and conference presentations, and a course for doctoral students with a citizen centred focus. Together with her colleagues within the DINO group, Mariana continues to participate in multiple research projects and collaborations.