Can housing bridge the digital divide?

I got an insight today into the role the affordable housing sector could play in getting more people online, which is one of the aims set out in the Government’s recently launched digital strategy.

I was with comms colleagues who work for providers across the South West, talking about how digital media can be used to build stronger relationships with key stakeholders, make transactions more efficient and cost effective and convey messages to a wider, more significant audience. More than anything, social media can be used to achieve the ‘gold standard’ of two-way communications, where organisations listen and respond to what they are hearing in a way that satisfies their audiences, and ultimately supports their business.

Many organisations are making fantastic progress with this work and comms teams are well placed to support it – even if it means they are more thinly spread than ever.

However a contribution from UK Online Centres, a well-respected not-for-profit which helps tackle digital exclusion, provided a reminder of the scale of the task in front of us:

1. As of late last year, according to ONS statistics, nearly 20% of UK adults were not online. That’s 8.2m people. This is apparently falling from previous years, but illustrates a growing gap between most of us who are online every day (nearly 80%) and those who aren’t.

2. Around 50% of those who aren’t online are social housing tenants.

This raises questions for organisations who want to provide more services and information online when many of their customers have never been there. It clearly can’t be the only option in such a case but, then, what is where comms is concerned ?

Affordable housing providers are addressing this by providing wider access to facilities and support for tenants to get them online and improve their skills and understanding of the internet. In doing so, they will be helped to access services more quickly and cheaply, which has benefits for providers and users (win win). Without this outreach support though, digital services will remain out of reach for too many people.

The Government’s strategy sets out an action to get more people online. Plans will be published this month and there may be funding available in the new year which providers could bid for to support digital outreach activity. This is one area where housing providers could make a difference. They are well placed to do so. It will be interesting to see what comes out of this in the months ahead.