By Dr Greg Ogle, Senior Policy Officer, SACOSS
There is no doubt that digital technology is changing the economy and society. Some, like World Economic Forum founder, Klaus Schwab, see it as the Fourth Industrial Revolution (the first three being: steam powered mechanical production in the late eighteenth century; mass production fostered by electricity and the production line from the late nineteenth century; and computerised technology from the 1960s main frames to the advent of the internet in the 1990s). As digital technology now embeds computerisation in all aspects of life, much public debate focuses optimistically on new technology and gadgets, or pessimistically on concerns with data and privacy. However, there are particular implications of digital transformation for the not-for-profit sector and for community services in particular. These can be summarised under four broad headings: digital inclusion/exclusion as a new frontier of inequality, data used against vulnerable people, data used to help vulnerable people, and digital technologies changing the services offered by our sector.
A New Frontier of Inequality
Digital technology can be considered a new frontier of inequality because as government, commerce and culture increasingly go online (and closing off access to physical shops, services and free-to-air content), those who are not part of the digital world will be left behind. The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII), which tracks digital access, affordability and literacy/competency, shows digital inclusion is improving, but as the internet becomes the social default medium the cost of exclusion becomes greater – the digital divide gets deeper as it becomes narrower.
The ADII also highlights that the gap between the digital haves and have-nots is substantial and that those with lower levels of income, employment or education, and those living outside the capital cities generally have lower levels of digital inclusion. This is not a simple reflection of existing inequalities: digital exclusion compounds those disadvantages. For instance, with access to technology, training and income, those in employment are likely to be more digitally included. Those without digital access or skills are less likely to get jobs and are therefore more likely remain economically and digitally excluded.
Data Used Against Vulnerable People
The second reason why digital transformation matters to the community services sector is the potential for harm to vulnerable and disadvantaged people. The datafication of life, where so much of our lives is captured in data and explored by algorithms, raises privacy and surveillance concerns for all citizens. But vulnerable people are especially susceptible as retailers build customer profiles to milk already stretched household budgets, online sportsbetting creates new money drains for problem gamblers, abusive spouses have a new toolkit of surveillance devices, cyber-bullying becomes ubiquitous and online scammers target the vulnerable.
Those on low incomes are also particularly subject to government over-reach. Virginia Eubanks’ landmark book Automating Inequality gives a series of examples from the United States of how using data to automate welfare systems actually backfires on the poor – importing and reinforcing disadvantage, and continuing systems of control that go back to nineteenth century poorhouses. Australia’s “robo-debt” debacle, the paternalism of cashless welfare cards, and problems with e-government shows that governmental use of digital technology to harm the poor is not limited to America.
Data used to help vulnerable people
The flip-side of this damaging use of data and technology is that digital technologies can make community services better. Digital technologies provide opportunities to make NFP administration more efficient and cost effective, to open up new communications and fundraising channels, and to better target service delivery. To some extent, this is just standard business development, but there are already innovative examples in community services. For instance, Infoxchange’s Ask Izzy platform and phone app not only provides an information source to direct people needing help to the nearest services, the data collected is used to map emerging service needs and to identify gaps in service provision.
Changing the Services Offered
But beyond making NFPs’ existing operations better, digital transformation will change the services being offered. It could be smart glasses replacing guide dogs, driverless cars replacing community buses, sensors remotely monitoring health functions, or smart houses locking out violent ex-partners or assisting child protection. The potential for digital technology to transform the lives of people with disability is particularly profound.
In this context, some services which have been offered to support vulnerable people will no longer be needed or will be radically transformed. For instance, if artificial intelligence can provide basic legal advice, then key functions of community legal services may not be needed. This could lead to defunding, or alternatively those legal services might find their resources freed up to do more court representation and policy advocacy. Similarly, when community health or counselling services go online, they can reach remote areas which will necessitate awareness and expertise in cultural and geographic areas not previously required.
And most obviously, there will be a need for services to support people to access and use the new digital technology. Public libraries are already transforming themselves from book storehouses to being at the forefront of access to digital knowledge, while the Be Connected network’s efforts to increase computer literacy and use among older Australians is just one of many programs that are only necessary because of the digital revolution.
We may not be comfortable with all the changes that digital technology may bring, but it is clear that the technology will create opportunities and pressures for transformation in our sector. However, as in all previous industrial revolutions, the outcomes of digital transformation are not inevitable or technologically determined. The technology exists in a context and it will reflect and reinforce power and social relations. And that is the point really. The technology is not inherently good or evil, but the outcomes may be. Unless the not-for-profit and community services sector get in front of the issues and help shape the transformation in all of the four areas above, we will spend the next 20 years picking up the pieces.
First published in Pro Bono News, 21 Feb 2019