Hosted by the Education Observatory the meeting was attended by 30 participants and speakers from digital technology businesses, local agencies, lifelong learning, enterprise and regional transformation project staff from across the Black Country, including the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA), Wolverhampton.gov and West Midlands Combined Universities as well as academics from University of Wolverhampton and colleagues from theCentre for Digital Citizens
The meeting was opened with a warm welcome and a strategic regional overview from Prof Nazira Karodia, who is the Pro-Vice Chancellor for Regional Development at the University of Wolverhampton. Nazira contextualised the event within the regional engagement work of the university that cuts across our research, knowledge exchange, teaching and professional activities bringing genuine economic, social and cultural benefits to the region. Nazira described the pre-pandemic work in the Black Country on digital inclusion and how the pandemic has amplified the criticality of this work. She discussed the connections between development of digital skills, proficiency and recognising how data is impacting on our lives and access to services for the community. The five missions of the new West Midlands Digital Roadmap are: to secure access for everyone to digital opportunities, share and use data to improve people’s lives, become the UK’s best-connected region, realise the potential of digital to transform our economy and build economic resilience and use digital public services to build a fairer, greener, healthier region. These missions are interconnected with our post-pandemic recovery and innovation and our focus on improving health and wellbeing,
Dr Stuart Connor then presented on Digital Inclusion and what happens when we succeed? He questioned how success in this area then impacts on the relationships we seek to develop, given that digital inclusion is so much more than simply connecting someone with a device. Stuart discussed the value of joining the recently formed WMCA Digital Inclusion Coalition who are looking at connections and data costs along with many broader issues, such as skills, knowledge and the contexts in which people reside. Stuart then raised the challenge that as we address one issue well, it can in turn create a whole new set of problems. As examples, a car may solve transport problems but brings issues of pollution and traffic congestion. Digital working from home can be convenient during the pandemic but may normalise overwork and destruction of work-life balance. Therefore, how do we recognise and evaluate success in the area of digital inclusion and what might be the costs that accompany success? So we achieve inclusion, but along with this can come the monitoring of our activities via video surveillance, email monitoring, attention, traffic, productivity and geo-location tracking and ‘bossware’. There are products like Teramind, Time Doctor, VeriClock, ActivTrak and companies like Microsoft offer user productivity scores to clients based on a wide range of metrics. Stuart asked how such monitoring makes us feel and whether this can act as a barrier to people wishing to be digitally included. This is why the Human Data Interaction (HDI) agenda, which puts human concerns around agency, legibility and negotiability at the heart of discussions about big data and analytics, is crucial. There is a need to be transparent, to enable people who have been disadvantaged to begin to navigate these relationships, as they become digitally included, but support needs to be available to them from those they already know and trust in the community. There is also a need to ask the question: why are we seeking to get people digitally included? Is this to develop workers for the future, to keep things as they are, or does digital inclusion give people access to resources that will help them to disrupt their situation and realise new relationships in the region and more widely?
Following Stuart’s presentation, participants raised questions concerning ways to resist surveillance. Given the intentions to become a more integrated ecosystem across the region, how might privacy also be maintained and how might citizens be better educated to protect their data? Whilst we all need to make individualised responses it is also important to discuss collective ways to address data and surveillance issues through digital governance.
Dr Alan Munro then introduced the EPSRC funded HDI network plus leading with the topic of: Why human data interaction issues are crucial to address in digital skills agendas. Alan explained that although the HDI network had an original focus on developing software, in some of the funded projects there has also been very interesting debate on the interlinked social aspects. The intention has been to create a community, to fund innovative research and to ‘be surprised’ by the interesting directions people take this. Firstly, the work around data and humans has been somewhat fragmented. Matching system design principles with our ethics and values and at what levels is often easier said than done. There are conflicting industrial, societal and academic values concerning the use of the data we generate and there really wasn’t much protection before GDPR. Secondly, there are amazing experts in systems and algorithms who are mystified by the social nature of these interactions leaving big culture gaps. Thirdly, there are those who we seek to include in digital skills and access to services who will also be impacted profoundly by these data challenges and the algorithmic mediation of all of our lives. An algorithm decides what we see on Facebook and Twitter for example, but if we seek transparency then there is a mass of coding and router activity to navigate. This is like ‘chasing the contents of a snow globe’. So transparency of this kind is not enough. It is no basis for practical action and decisions on our data. The three core tenets the HDI network is based on and that are addressed by all of the funded projects are: legibility, agency and negotiability. So HDI draws on traditional ethical concerns such as autonomy, consent and agency and to frame these concerns in ways that speak to the technical community. HDI seeks to address choices, actions and effects via a framework that brings ethics to the forefront of systems design and so is a critical lens and a basis for practical action. Much collaboration is needed across different disciplines and actors to address issues like, for example, how traces of racism are picked up by algorithms and travel through data and systems. There are huge gulfs between close work on systems architecture, levels of politics and larger theoretical overviews of what the network aims to achieve. Whilst the devil is in the detail, the question Alan concluded with was: are the HDI tenets enough? Alan asked people to reflect on data literacy and to see ourselves as ‘the product’ when we are using different websites. How do we read these sites, knowing they are mediated by algorithms? How to understand where our data goes and who is finding things out about us. Privacy is no longer a given, so we each need to develop a literacy.
Following Alan’s talk there were several questions and comments concerning surveillance capitalism, the notion of being ‘the product’ and how this works in relation to the drivers of big tech companies. Also concerning the levels of literacy that people may be able to develop, given that there will be limits to us ever really understanding what happens to our data. This led to discussion concerning the Internet of Things (IoT) and former work on how such developments might be controlled. In the example of Ring, it may be necessary to delve deeply into such systems to cut off certain networks of access. RFID Guardian was developed to block some forms of access to data, but such approaches require particular levels of competence. There are many issues in HDI but these are radically contextual in their nature. The next question raised concerned the idea of the expert who is mystified by the social, and the social mystified by the expert. It was suggested that when working with young people who are in far from an ideal place in their lives, will digital inclusion approaches achieve a desirable outcome for them? As they describe their future state in rich pictures they can certainly articulate how bad it is for them now, but does an expert view inform or hinder their progress towards something better? It was agreed that this is a really difficult question to answer, even for those who are considered experts in the digital world. In some ways there are analogies with the physical acts of enclosure that have happened in history. As data becomes a property of companies and governments, there is a very worrying trend with Bossware. Almost an act of enclosure by stealth. For those of us who know about tracking we can make small acts of resistance to leave the data trail we want to, rather than the one that others want us to.
The observations were made that there is a balance between risk and utility. Then there is also the questions of inequalities. In adult education a major challenge for online learning is firstly access, then developing agency and fluency. At the level of utility if you suffer from a debilitating illness and you use technology to communicate with people you never meet, to find out about options concerning health then you are empowered when you see your doctor. There are levels of literacy that enable connections with family around the world. However, when we discuss inequalities generated by the masters of Silicon Valley, we realise that despite all of the inequalities we have sought to physically address concerning, for example, class, gender and race, here is an inequality that we cannot engage in when we look at that green screen of code. This is a dilemma that can then make us feel even more disempowered around our data and maintaining our privacy unless the choices we can make are visible at the levels that we can understand or are skilled in. It was agreed that we may need to develop many little changes to our behaviour as resistance, forms of vigilance and actions concerning searches and browsers, email accounts and Facebook. Some small things can make a difference, even though they may not seem that sophisticated. It requires a little bit of work, but that work is useful.
The next speaker, Emmanuel Donaldson, from Progressive Media Entertainment, who is an Indie filmmaker and storyteller based in Birmingham was then introduced by Matt Johnson. Matt and Manni had decided to conduct a dialogue about Manni’s work which includes projects conducted around the world and in the West Midlands where digital is used as a way of opening up expression amongst young people. Manni has been running a project called Isolationships which amplifies people’s voices, given the disruption that Covid-19 has created. He took on 8 – 10 young people from a variety of backgrounds and encouraged them to be creative in sharing their ideas about their relationships with themselves. The project also involved mentors from the music industry and TV actors. They each had to make an introductory video on what isolation meant to them. Some of the young people discussed struggling to come to terms with identity, gender, Black Lives Matter, their ideas concerning losing a friend to suicide. Under the guise of creativity, they were able to get their message out and share their data on their own terms, dealing with really sensitive topics, but in a way that gave agency in using the digital platforms to express their voice over animations. Their parents became involved too in directing and filming. Manni was then asked about the barriers he perceived in the digital space when working with young people and entrepreneurs in the West Midlands. Accessibility due to cost is a real barrier to kids getting to go to film school as there is no kind of bursary. Manni had been able to pay monthly and had vowed to help others from working class backgrounds to access such training in the future. He discussed the issues concerning data and monitoring but added that there needs to be a balance between dark and light sides to this topic when so much good can come from young people getting their stories out. Matt asked about Manni’s work with so many diverse digital innovators and whether the people he works with really think about data and privacy concerns. Manni replied yes to this, as data is really important to those he works with. They are asked what they do and don’t wish to share and whether they want to keep the camera on or not. Matt then asked Manni about any barriers, in terms of local funding, to the scaling up of digital skills and supporting so-called digital natives who have brilliant ideas. Manni said it is hard for small companies like his to access the funding. His partnership with Isolationships who are in London had enabled to funding for that programme. Funding tends to go to the organisations who have already built a history with the Arts Council for example. Matt summarised the wish to give a local perspective through his interview with Manni and then invited questions. An observation was made that if you are not from the right background then there all kinds of obstacles that need to be navigated just to be able to reach anything approaching a level playing field that others are on. Manni commented that whilst a lot of kids from West Brom or Birmingham and its surrounds can have ability to make films, there is a lot of nepotism in the film industry and the need for money to be able to get access to valuable knowledge through film school. It is hard to make money via YouTube views too, as so many views are needed. Analogies between online and offline experiences were made, for example, in the idea of moving to London in the past when it wasn’t so expensive to live in order to get into comedy and TV. Now this would need a great deal of money that no one from a working class background could hope to invest. Comments were made from other participants with experience working in TV who said that to diversify who works in these areas are challenged by how many people want to move in this direction and how few are often taken. The question was asked as to why careers cannot be developed by moving around from company to company and gaining bits of experience, however diverse. This was suggested given that all companies now need to engage with digital media. There are routes out there that people can build alongside people doing their own thing online. Learning about a film that is going to be shot in the area and getting involved as an extra is another way to gain experience. Manni added that there are many ways to get into the game and this is a skillset every organisation now needs to have.
The final speaker was Catherine Perry from Wolverhampton City Council who provided a demonstration of the DigitalWolves site and community area. Catherine explained her role in relation to digital infrastructure and digital inclusion. DigitalWolves provides a repository of information for people to access training opportunities and career advice and to support businesses and charities. Catherine pointed out the overview and the location of the regional strategies on the website as well as the details of webinars that partners are running and the Twitter feed. The aim of the site is also to create a bit of a digital movement as a lot is happening in Wolverhampton and its surrounds concerning digital, but not everyone knows about it. From finding out if residents have the basics of equipment, access and enough skills and understanding to get online to linking digital buddies. There is support for people to get online through libraries and learning partnerships. There is a lending scheme for devices. There is also basic training available. People are signposted to digital skills training which is a huge area, so Catherine explained different areas to be developed and the need to link people to those they can trust and up to date content. She explained also how they are seeking to inspire people, provide links to gaming and film making and to raise people’s aspirations so that they can feel that digital careers are something they can consider. There is a section for staying safe online and so Catherine added that further data literacy, privacy and data protection details will be added here too, after today’s discussions. There are sections on diversity and finding a local digital centre. There is information for schools and on careers and apprenticeships. The need to help people who are already in work but need to keep developing their digital skills was also flagged up. Catherine also demonstrated pages that are aimed at businesses and charities and staying safe online, support for the workforce and on how social media can be used in business. There are pages on how the digital infrastructure is being developed across Wolverhampton, information on 5G and about getting online and pages that link to the Education Observatory. Catherine was then asked some questions, including how the message could get to those who are disadvantaged and not yet online. The council are working with local partners in this capacity, with digital buddies and developing a scheme that has run during Covid-19 lockdowns to deliver food parcels. Such volunteers are being trained in both supporting people to be vaccinated and in getting them online. Working then through both trusted local partners, such as The Learning Partnership, and building a network of supporters. As people are seeking ESOL, basic childcare and other help then these and local libraries will be able to respond. DigitalWolves is a starter for ten which gets information out to people initially. It is now important to work with partners to develop this. Catherine was asked if there is a Learning Management System built into the site for training pathways. Catherine replied that the site will signpost people to local education and skills providers, colleges and University of Wolverhampton. There is also an intention to develop a Telecoms Academy and to work with a range of partners, such as Adult Ed, Learn Play and School of Coding, to identify gaps and do pilots around gaps that exist. Participants then exchanged contacts with Catherine and offered to make introductions. Catherine invited participants to view and add to the DigitalWolves site and to increase the interactivity around the website. There were a few final questions and comments concerning Cities of Learning, job journeys and digital badges.
The last session of the meeting was led by Matt Johnson who provided a summary of the key themes/questions that emerged from the afternoon’s discussions that could be gathered into a briefing, including:
- Accessibility and barriers to participation within the digital space
- What are we defining as the digital sector?
- What is a successful outcome of digital inclusion?
- Does this concern successful access, interaction online without being misled by misinformation, fraud or data and privacy issues?
- How to reach the unreachable and take stock of the existing skills?
- Demand led approaches
- Knowledge transfer in relation to the places where companies are based.
- How do we connect all of this innovative work with those who might be digital natives in deprived locations?
- Governance – how are digital strategies being developed and what voices are being brought to the table to be included?
Matt added that we live and work in a location where there is a very young and potentially creative population. There is a need to match supply with demand to embed this creativity economically. The digital sector is fast-paced and it is important in the West Midlands to capture the diversity of voice to shape the right strategy for the West Midlands going forward. Concluding remarks on the West Midlands Combined Authority’s Digital Inclusion Coalition were made by Isobel Thomas, who has been seconded from the Good Things Foundation to work in this area. The Coalition has identified some priorities, but it needs to have strong community voices influencing what is done to work out what digital exclusion really means in the region. This includes questions like: how do we lobby government for change, or invest in the voluntary sector to ensure that people can be supported to become digitally included and gain skills, motivation and confidence? Isobel added that the issues of data and privacy that were discussed in this EPSRC HDI regional meeting today really come into this category of: skills, motivation and confidence. So being a confident user of the Internet who understands the downsides and can be safe online are crucial elements that the Coalition will pick up as plans for action and across the region’s communities. This will address what we can do jointly to add value. The event concluded with sincere thanks to all speakers and contributors.
Isobel Thomas was invited after the event to give a talk at the next Midlands Higher Education Policy Network Debate taking place on 12 May 4:00 – 5:30 hosted by the Education Observatory.
Participant comments on the meeting included:
‘Thank you! very interesting topics and session’
‘Excellent discussion. Thanks everyone’
‘Thank you really interesting session’