Blog Post

Addressing digital equity & the digital divide in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector

(This is the first in a series of posts from the Settlement Sector & Technology Task Group's final report: From Silos to Solutions: Toward Sustainable and Equitable Hybrid Service Delivery in the Immigrant & Refugee-Serving Sector in Canada. Over the coming days/weeks, I will be extracting thematic sections from the report and posting them as articles to make them more accessible. In each key theme, we provide an introduction, sector perspectives (from interviews and focus groups), a number of useful tools and practices we have found to help guide our recommendations to help the sector and IRCC develop the themes into practice, and then a list of specific recommendations that are relevant to the theme.)

Digital Inclusion

Addressing digital inclusion is complex. It requires recognition of the challenge and sustained effort to address it. There is no single strategy or method that could address all populations’ needs. Instead, localization and customization of different programs in Service Providing Organizations (SPOs) requires flexibility. Digital inequity is multifaceted, and intersects with culture, gender, age, class, and educational background. 

The sector wants to look at technology from a social justice and service lens. The sector recognizes that there is a digital divide, not everyone has digital skills, and that not everyone has access to technology, or wants to access services via technology. Much has been written, identified and codified in other human service sectors that can and should be easily transferred to the immigrant and refugee-serving sector. We outline these throughout the report. Resources can be borrowed, replicated, and customized for the settlement sector. Developing guidelines for professional practice on the use of technology in human service delivery is essential. 

Frontline practitioners work directly and closely with their clients and comprehensively understand clients’ barriers and needs. Since March 2020, settlement frontline practitioners have worked to assist clients to access virtual service and participate in virtual learning. They have become digital service trainers, digital navigators, digital equity advocates, cybersecurity consultants, digital coaches, mentors, and more. They are adult educators, who invest endless efforts to build practical and equitable digital services and online learning spaces that some of them and their clients had not previously explored. 

Addressing Digital Equity and the Digital Divide

Introduction and Discussion about Digital Equity and the Digital Divide

The digital divide is a complex social challenge that requires interventions in a hybrid service delivery model. It also creates opportunities for SPOs to reflect, revisit, and refine their daily virtual interactions with vulnerable populations in order to provide more targeted services to marginalized social groups.

It is important for the sector to explore formal definitions of digital inequity and inclusion. It is an area that requires additional insight and research so it can be adequately addressed by agencies and funders. Sector discussions identified a variety of factors contributing to digital inequity, including an inability to access or having poor internet connections: 1) clients had no access to digital devices such as cell phone, laptop, or tablets; 2) clients were living in precarious situations, which limited their digital device access; and 3) clients had low digital literacy skills to use digital devices or online tools. In addition, survey respondents indicate that low digital literacy combined with language barriers (including low literacy in their own languages) produced additional challenges for online service delivery.

This is an important and unique opportunity to avoid reproducing societal inequities through technology.

Bridging the Digital Divide

The digital divide is made up of a variety of factors contributing to digital inequity and an inability to access had poor internet connections, including digital services: 1) clients had no access to digital devices such as cell phone, laptop, or tablets; 2) clients were living in precarious situations, which limited their digital device access; 3) clients; and 4) clients had low digital literacy skills to use digital devices or online tools. In addition, survey respondents indicate that low digital literacy combined with language barriers produced additional challenges for online service delivery.

In our Preliminary Report we identified the importance of both customization and localization of digital service delivery, along with pan-sectoral strategies. These include ethical considerations and sector standardization on topics such as digital security, digital workplace collaboration and integration, and digital service competencies and policies. At the same time a spotlight has been focused on digital equity issues and the digital divide among newcomer and racialized communities, made more pressing by the pandemic shift to digital service delivery. 

Digital inequity is not a new issue in Canada, but one that requires constant vigilance as “low income Canadians… are being kept (or pushed) offline by unaffordable high-speed Internet fees, low speed targets and data capping, as well as cuts to adult and community literacy programs that were once hubs of digital learning.” 

This recent Toronto South Local Immigration Partnership (TSLIP) report outlines how the “lack of equitable access to technology has been a long-standing issue for vulnerable and marginalized populations including newcomers, and along with other equity issues has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. This report outlines how the transition to online service delivery by government and community agencies has impacted newcomers, especially those in vulnerable situations, with the intent that findings be used to inform policy and drive social change.”

TSLIP’s report is complemented by Brookfield Institute’s Mapping Toronto’s Digital Divide, which analyzes Toronto's home internet and device access, quality, affordability, and usage, during pandemic closures of businesses, schools, and community organizations. Their findings “reinforce the need to continue scaling programs to close the remaining gaps in internet and device access. They also highlight notable gaps in internet quality and affordability along lines of income, age and race that urgently require greater policy and programmatic response”

Ryerson University’s (in partnership with the Brookfield Institute for Innovation + Entrepreneurship, the First Nations Technology Council and SFU Public Square) Overcoming Digital Divides framing paper and workshop series is one space where the conversation is moving from identifying the problem to moving to solutions. They ask: “How can federal, provincial, territorial, municipal and Indigenous governments advance policy solutions for full digital inclusion? What community and industry programs and policies can help to close these divides?”

These recent reports outline long held concerns by researchers and advocates who study the demography of the digital divide:

  • It is estimated that 91% of Canadians have access to the internet. However, according to the Toronto Public Library “The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications (CRTC) reports that only 59 percent of low income households have internet access at home. People who do not have internet access at home are at a disadvantage, and we have a role to play in helping to close the digital divide.” 
  • ACORN Canada’s research on internet use and accessibility for low-income Canadians “reveal that the internet plays an important role in the everyday lives of low-income earners; however, the high costs of obtaining high-speed home internet connections can lead to unnecessary hardship. Respondents who struggle to afford home internet access detailed the detrimental effect this has on: job searching and job retention; school work (at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels) and related academic achievement benchmarks; access to information on healthcare and nutrition; access to and understanding of government forms and processes; and civic and social participation.” 
  • New internet performance data shows the staggering scale of Canada’s urban-rural digital divide: “The data demonstrates the massive gap in actual, measured internet speeds experienced by Canadian households in rural and urban areas. For example, in April, rural download speeds were nearly 12 times slower than those enjoyed by urban Canadians. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, internet speeds have fallen for rural users, and increased for urban users, effectively widening Canada’s digital divide.”
  • Barriers to Digital Equality in Canada outlines many barriers contributing to Canada’s digital divide.
  • The Digital Divide Between Canadian Cities finds that “The shift to a highly digitalized world risks exacerbating the divergence in income and job opportunities between regions. This has been most pronounced in the U.S., where superstar cities that attract highly paid tech workers leave their smaller counterparts further and further behind… Policymakers have taken a number of steps to address regional divergence, however greater focus is required. Technology dynamics tend to form quickly and are hard to unwind once established.
  • The impact of Ontario’s digital divide finds that “our interactions with government and public services, workplaces, financial institutions and businesses [increasingly take place] online. But differences in income, age, education and immigration status, and whether we live in an urban or rural community, mean differences in our online access. The resulting digital divide has three interrelated layers: differences in how people connect to the Internet; differences in what kind of online activities they engage in; and differences in how they benefit from their interactions with services, resources, and networks that are only available online.
  • The CRTC Communications Monitoring Report provides an overview of the adoption of communications technologies by Canadian households from 2013-2017, and illustrates the trends in household communications expenditure.
  • The Canadian Internet Use Survey outlines how the internet is used by Canadians in their personal and work lives. For example, in 2018 “30% of employed Canadian Internet users reported that their employer expected them to use the Internet to stay connected outside of their regular work hours, and almost one-quarter (23%) of employed Canadians reported that they had done some telework.”
  • Digital Equity Ottawa, as part of the Ottawa Neighbourhood Equity Index (a tool to assess and compare unnecessary and unfair differences at a neighbourhood level on factors impacting wellbeing) provides a snapshot of the digital divide in Ottawa, including recognizing how “the non-profit sector in Ottawa is facing its own digital divide, including issues with hardware, software, helpdesk supports and a skills gap in some agencies. In order to serve our residents effectively, the non-profit sector needs to assess its own digital health and ensure it’s keeping pace with evolving needs. 

What is digital inclusion? 

Ryerson University’s paper frames the broad challenge succinctly:

“Canada’s digital divide has often been narrowly defined as the gap that exists between urban and rural broadband internet availability — Canadian urban centres have significantly greater internet subscription levels at faster speeds than rural communities.1 The cost of building new internet infrastructure in less developed areas continues to impede equitable access to sufficient internet services. 

However, a simple urban-rural characterization misses much of the complexities and nuances that shape Canada’s digital reality. Disparities in internet adoption and speed are also significantly correlated with socio-economic inequalities and demographic factors such as income, age, education, race, Indigeneity and ability.”

These nuances are clearly a reality and concern in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector. If digital inclusion is not adequately addressed, an IRPP Policy Options article suggests that we risk perpetuating existing inequalities: “Although technology benefits our societies, we must be wary of letting its effects play out unrestrained, especially given the current high levels of inequality around the world. To ensure technology delivers for all, people’s well-being must be placed at the centre of public policy.”  

There are a number of nuanced definitions to describe digital inclusion. The immigrant serving sector needs to thoroughly evaluate these to adopt one, or create a sector-specific definition moving forward:

The international humanitarian sector suggests that addressing digital equity should focus on the 5 A’s of Technology Access:

  • Availability – Availability is not only about availability of connectivity, it is also about availability of relevant content in local languages and the availability of adaptive and assistive technologies for people with disabilities.
  • Affordability – Even if technology access is available for some people, it may not be affordable.
  • Awareness – Be aware of digital governance initiatives, such as the Connecting Families program.
  • Ability – Even when availability, affordability, and awareness are high, a person’s ability to make effective use of a technology can be limited by a lack of digital literacy, skills, or knowledge. Do you and your clients have the skills?
  • Agency – Even for those marginalized people who experience civic technologies as available and affordable, and for whom awareness and abilities are no restriction, agency (the extent to which a person’s feels able to act in the world to bring about change or what a person is able to do in line with their conception of the good) may remain a formidable barrier.

It is also a public policy advocacy issue. From the Ontario Digital Inclusion Summit: “There’s also a research and policy gap. It’s not merely about knowing that digital divides are real, but understanding at the ground level how they affect particular groups, communities, regions and individuals so that governments and other stakeholders can adapt. In a world where people debate big and small government, it’s about deciding, together, what our collective responsibility is to each other — and how digital provides both new opportunities and challenges in upholding that responsibility.” 

What of funding to address the digital divide? 

Addressing the digital divide to ensure digital inclusion requires investments

As the sector and all other service providers pivoted to online services over the past year, the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA) released a study detailing the funding shortfalls facing organizations that work to improve the quality of Canada’s internet: “The study finds that resources are scarce for not-for-profits, charities and researchers working to connect Canadians to high-quality internet that is affordable and secure during a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated Canada’s digital divide… while ensuring all Canadians are digitally connected has never been more important, Canada’s “digital philanthropy” sector is ill-defined... The research finds that funding for internet-related projects is limited, complicated, and difficult to access, which leads to competition for resources amongst groups who share the same goals.”

Striving for digital inclusion of all newcomers is a key goal. However, it should not be assumed that once individuals have access to tech/internet, they will access services independently using the internet. Existing lo-fi or non-digital approaches should also be viewed as part of the hybrid service delivery continuum. There is a rich history of these in the sector.

Creating access through lo-fi and other service delivery models

While most settlement services are offered within specific offices during typical office hours, innovation in itinerant service delivery has existed for some time. Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS), Library Settlement Partnerships (LSP), and other services aim to meet newcomers in the community.  

As a recent Standing Committee On Citizenship And Immigration (CIMM) (2019) report found “the itinerant settlement services model [is] a service that goes to newcomers, overcoming the lack-of-transportation barrier. In addition, she said it does not require maintaining physical buildings, appointments are set up as needed, and the location is chosen based on its convenience for the newcomer, such as a local library. Ms. Crane maintained that this approach is flexible, needs-based and very efficient. She believes that LIPs have an important role to play in setting up itinerant settlement services, as they can put settlement service officials in touch with community organizations.”

The 2020 COVID & Canada’s Settlement Sector Survey identified how sector workers and leadership are resilient, adaptable, and committed to the well-being of their clients as they suddenly shifted to remote and digital work early in the pandemic.

A COVID-19 RAP SPO Survey (April 3 2020 update) also sought to get a better understanding of how RAP SPOs across Canada are responding to the unique challenges and issues currently being faced as a result of COVID-19 in order to continue to support vulnerable GAR clients.

Sector Perspectives on Digital Equity and the Digital Divide

Our interviews and focus group data found that SPOs have incrementally better understood the dimensions of digital inequality in the immigrant serving sector. It needs to consider different social and situational contexts intersected in clients’ social class and status:  

Digital transformation needs to be considered in a broader social context, high cost and poor quality of internet services and an impediment. And particularly affecting lower income groups. And success in digital transformation can hardly be viewed independently from the issues with underlying infrastructure (technology, SPO, focus group)

Addressing digital inequality is a long-term challenge. Frontline practitioners need to be aware of the complex vulnerability in clients’ lived experiences when considering digital accessibility: 

The expectation from the client to be engaged and to have access to technology sometimes is too high, we need to be very cautious about it and very mindful of their access to technology, network, and connectivity issues that happens very frequently in some areas, and also them having their own kids studying from home or somebody else trying to work from home all these challenges come with the technology. (employment, SPO, focus group)

With the purpose of solving digital inequality, participants shared with us their solution-oriented  practices to support different vulnerable social groups:

So we’re finding that there is less of a need in regards to computers, but still a need for digital literacy. So not saying that they’re able to use the computer, but they have one. So those are the differences. So, there is still an understanding of whether you know, they need assistance when they’re at home, do they have someone that’s home that can give them more assistance, or if there’s nobody at home, and then we have a sense of whether that person would need more help, what they helped us with his enlisting our settlement counselors to kind of assist more with translation. So, if there was a need, and it was an area that somebody couldn’t understand or grasp, we would bring in a settlement counselor to help us with translation that spoke their language. And then we could work through the difficulties and problem solve with them. So we’ve had to kind of leverage each other’s services in order to really meet the needs of the client. (technology, SPO, focus group)

To further tackle digital inequality issues among different vulnerable populations, collaboration has played a key role:  

So, when the containment just started, we decided to conduct online friendship clubs for kids and do some activities for them. And the challenge that we had was not every family had computer devices. For example, when parents worked from home, they used the computer, so kids weren’t able to attend any of these events because parents have been using that. So, we worked together with community partners, and delivered additional computers to the families. And also, the school district that we work in partnership, they provide the devices for high school students, but not all elementary school students have these devices. So, it was great to have this collaboration with other partners in the community…. Also, we noticed that not every young person has a phone number, but they all on Instagram. So, before we had the WhatsApp chat, but because they use their phone numbers from different countries, so it was not easy to communicate with them. Then we transferred them to Instagram. We’re just doing more like promotional things via Instagram, where we provide some additional information about upcoming workshops, upcoming info sessions or different activities. (school and library, focus group)        

Digital Equity and the Digital Divide Tools & Practice

The NTEN Equity Guide for Nonprofit Technology provides an important overview and useful framework for the sector to approach technology through an equity and social justice lens so that technology is implemented in a way that furthers equity:

“Technology touches every aspect of a nonprofit for both staff and constituents, including collecting data and its use, how communication and training may happen, and even their access to necessary tools. Because of technology’s vast influence, it can easily create or exacerbate inequities both inside and outside the organization. These guidelines define nonprofits as formally established, community-based groups and coalitions working on social impact, or grantmakers.”

The guide provides a number of useful and practical guidelines to ensure equity in technology planning and implementation.

In 2017 the US Social Work sector outlined standards for Technology in social work practice. These standards provide ethical guidelines and specific standards to be met when providing services to clients in four main sections: (1) provide information to the public; (2) design  and deliver services; (3) gather, manage, store,and access information about clients; and (4) educate and supervise social workers. 

Digital Equity and the Digital Divide - Relevant Recommendations

  • Recommendation 1: Develop a roadmap to support organizational digital transformation -- Now: Digital equity and inclusion strategies should be established and form the foundation of a sector digital transformation approach. The sector should review existing Digital Maturity Models, Data Maturity Models, Digital Inclusion, and Digital Literacy models from within and outside nonprofit sectors to curate and customize models for the sector. 
  • Recommendation 2: Establish a common and sector-wide vision for digital literacy -- Now: Technology should be looked at through a social justice and service lens, recognizing that there is a digital divide, and that not everyone has access to technology, or wants to access services via technology.  Assessing digital literacy is different from evaluating digital consumption behaviour. Instead, it should be sustainable and comprehensive. We recommend three important components for digital literacy assessment: 1) define the concept of digital literacy in the sector recognizing the uniqueness of clients in different programs; 2) assessment should be contextualized in settlement practitioners’ daily work practices and serve their programs’ goals; 3) when designing the assessment, it is crucial to consider clients’ intersectional identities, including race, gender, educational and professional background, sexual orientation, disability, and cultural practices. There needs to be funding support in terms of building up infrastructure (such as broadband, high speed internet connections, which continue to be technology challenges in many rural and smaller communities) in agencies as well as communities. While this is outside IRCC’s direct sphere of influence, it is essential that the sector and newcomer perspectives on the digital divide are included in any pan-Canadian solution, programs, and interventions, as there are specific nuances related to newcomers that must be considered in these approaches. 
  • Recommendation 6: Ensure sector nuances are taken into account -- all sub-sections

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