Banking, school admin, train tickets and medical care. As increasing amounts of public service are carried out online, the lack of access for some people is becoming a problem that affects more than the individuals themselves.
“The basis for a good society is that everyone is treated equally and that everybody benefits from common resources. This makes us ready to contribute and to follow shared regulations. But what happens when people who are outside of the digital sphere feel excluded from society and its services”, asks Elin Wihlborg, professor of political science, and leader of a research group looking at digitisation in public service.
It’s not as simple as expecting digital exclusion to be solved as the older generation disappears. It’s more complex than that.
“It’s also about language barriers and cognitive and physical disabilities, and about knowledge and understanding of how society functions”, says Elin Wihlborg. “The world around us is changing, and we change and age: new situations mean anyone may become excluded at some time.”
Ethical dilemmasElin Wihlborg, professor of political science Photo credit Magnus JohanssonThe public libraries have become a collecting point for people affected by exclusion. These libraries have a long tradition as agents for public education in Sweden, and are regarded by the population as highly trustworthy. As the rate of digitisation in society has increased, the libraries have taken on a new task: to help and train people in digital issues. A phenomenon known as DigidelCenter has been established in several municipalities, one of which being Motala. This municipality is often seen as a good example, and Elin Wihlborg’s research group has studied it.
A questionnaire circulated among visitors to DigidelCenter in Motala has shown that most age groups are represented. In the groups aged 25-35 years, for example, as many visit as in the group aged 75-85. The two most common mother tongues are Swedish and Tigrinya. The questions that visitors need help with are, for example, interaction with government agencies; questions about mobile phones, iPads and computers; banking; and job seeking. And sometimes it can be a simple matter, such as access to a printer.
The new responsibilities also have affected library personnel, which an interview study carried out by Elin Wihlborg’s in the Motala library has shown. The personnel must keep up-to-date with rapid advances in technology, and they must have knowledge about the tasks and digital services provided by public bodies. Government agencies and banks frequently refer people to the libraries to obtain help. And dealing with some cases can, furthermore, take considerable time.
“This means that the personnel can face various ethical dilemmas, situations in which they sometimes stand alone when taking a decision”, says Elin Wihlborg. “It may be help to log in with BankID, renewing a prescription or reading private messages. It may be difficult to know where to draw the line, and what is included in their role as librarian may be unclear.”
The journey is one of the goals
Digital exclusion cannot be solved by new legislation: it requires a process that is already under way, and that will never be completed.
“Researchers can illuminate the problems, not solve them”, says Elin Wihlborg. Together with her research group she works to disseminate the results and bring good examples to municipalities and research funding bodies, such as the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions and the Formas research council. Knowledge in this way gets spread and makes a difference.
The research group also collaborates also with, among other bodies, the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Swedish National Digitalisation Council, where Emily Nordqvist is head of communication.
“It’s important to promote digital participation, and we are trying to understand why people remain outside”, she says. “Research is important here; it ensures that our survey has credibility. Collaboration with universities means that we can get to grips with the issue in depth, and for us Linköping University and Elin Wihlborg are natural partners. They’ve been working in the field for a long time, and their research is based on not only political science but also information science. And you also have to remember that the journey is one of the goals: the exchange of knowledge is valuable and useful”, says Emily Nordqvist.
Translated by George Farrants