South Australians in the state's regions are being left behind in an increasingly online world while libraries and community centres are struggling to keep up with demand for digital support, according to a new report by the South Australian Council of Social Service.
More than 100 people and organisations in SA's regions were consulted for the 'Keys to the Digital World' report, which was supported by the Local Government Association and the auDA Foundation.
The report found that as face-to-face services such as banking and government continue to decline across the regions, libraries and community centres have stepped up to support people build their digital capacity.
This support, which can be quite time-consuming and onerous for library and community centre stuff, ranges from helping register people's phones and assisting with online banking and complex online government application forms through to providing wifi, computer and printing facilities.
Other key findings in the report include:
- Many older people reporting challenges around basic phone setup and maintenance, and interacting with essential services online;
- Low-income people's digital capacities are particularly affected by budget pressures, such as having limited data or relying on one (often poorly functioning) device only; and
- Connectivity issues are widespread, with stories about having to walk down the road to call an ambulance
SACOSS is calling on the state government to set up a regional digital inclusion fund. This fund would bolster the capability of regional libraries and community centres to build the community's level of digital ability and access, including:
- Continuing skills classes and drop-in services for people needing urgent digital advice;
- Outreach and roaming services for communities where there are no digital inclusion services;
- Ensuring even the smallest regional communities have at least one dedicated space where there is reasonable access to free wifi, computers, printing, and related facilities; and
- Device-loaning and data-loaning programs, to allow low-income people to take devices and data home, to improve their access at home, and bolster their digital skills.
Quotes attributable to SACOSS Director of Policy and Advocacy, Dr Rebecca Tooher
Being part of the online world is now an essential part of life. What this report shows is that many people in regional South Australia are being left behind.
We already know there is a deep digital divide in South Australia - the gap between having or not having the necessary digital skills, or access to data and devices. According to the latest Australian Digital Inclusion Index, regional SA is well behind Adelaide (7.1% point gap), and the rest of Australia including other regional areas (4.2% point gap).
This report underlines that people in SA's regions are more likely to be without the digital ability and access they need. And because financial and government institutions are increasingly relying more on online services and less on face-to-face, this has a major flow-on effect for the libraries and community centres.
It's these libraries and community centres that have stepped up to be lifelines for people. The staff in these centres have had to become digital jacks of all trades - they are doing the work that would have been performed by staff in Centrelink, banks and telecommunications providers.
We want the state government to act. The funding provided recently is either not targeted to the right areas or too little to make any meaningful change. This report details how significant, long term funding is needed to ensure South Australians living in the regions become more digitally capable and confident, and able to enjoy the full economic and social benefits of being part of the online world.
Quotes attributable to Local Government Association of SA President, Mayor Dean Johnson
Local libraries and community centres often have a role in bridging the digital divide by default, helping residents use essential online services with access to Wi-Fi and computers.
Earlier this year, we ran the campaign 'Libraries are the heart of community' highlighting the enormous value libraries bring to South Australians and the need for them to be funded
No longer are libraries simply about borrowing books – they provide services like access to the internet, Wi-Fi, computers, programs for people of all ages, and are a place where people can come together and connect.
It’s why we’re pleased to help fund this research through the Local Government Research and Development Scheme to better understand the critical work libraries and community centres can do in digital inclusion.
State Government funding for regional digital programs is an investment in the growth and wellbeing of communities, assisting those who don’t have the skills, budget or connectivity to use online services easily and feel confident about using digital technology.
Quotes attributable to regional residents with lived experience
Fairly confident now, but sunk to a real low, before I took the computer classes at my community hub – Christine, self-employed older person, Yorke Peninsula
You chew up your data, which chews up your food budget – Tom, Jobseeker, Terowie
It just keeps loading and loading…I spent so long, just drafting one e-mail – Naomi, Jobseeker, Terowie