Given that my last in-person research seminar was early last year on 19th February 2020 (when I was the speaker at an event at the University of Glasgow), I was very excited to venture onto campus ten days ago on 17th November 2021 to welcome a visitor to the Centre for Social Informatics. At the invitation of Dr David Brazier, Dr Morgan Harvey, Lecturer in Data Science and Information Retrieval in the Information School at the University of Sheffield, kindly travelled to Edinburgh to present the findings from some research that he conducted when employed at Northumbria University. He also took advantage of the trip north to work with David on revisions to a paper that they have recently co-authored.
The theme of Morgan’s presentation – delivered in hybrid mode with around half the membership of Centre for Social Informatics on campus, and the rest on Teams – was egovernment services and the digital divide. Morgan outlined a two-part study designed to investigate the impact of digitisation of UK government and council services with reference to digital exclusion. He undertook this research with his former colleagues David Hastings (Northumbria) and Gobinder Chowdhury (ex-Northumbria, now at Strathclyde). In phase 1, they analysed a year’s worth of data from Newcastle City Council’s customer logs to establish the most common support requests made by the public. In phase 2 they discussed these findings in interviews with staff in customer-facing roles at the city’s flagship central library.
Their main finding was that poor interface design, ineffective access, and low levels of end-user digital literacy are the primary reasons for underuse of egovernment services, and that these factors have hidden costs. They also noted that many members of the population rely on others to mediate their online interactions. In their write-up of the study, Morgan and his team adopted the term ‘digital carer’ for this role. This corresponds with the concept of the ‘digital proxy’ developed by Centre for Social Informatics colleagues, as introduced by Dr Peter Cruickshank in a presentation at Information Seeking in Context (ISIC) 2020 in September last year, and since published in Information Research: Cruickshank, P., Webster G. & Ryan, F. (2020). Assisting information practice: from information intermediary to digital proxy. Information Research 25(4).
The findings of Morgan’s study (and similar work that we in the Centre for Social Informatics have conducted) have implications for service design and delivery, particularly in terms of providing online access to under-served groups, such as the elderly and marginalised, for whom digital by default often means further exclusion.
At the conclusion of Morgan’s talk, we enjoyed a lively discussion with contributions from both sections of the audience. David Brazier (as organiser of the afternoon’s proceedings) expertly chaired the Q&A. The questions covered: practical issues such as securing participation of the case study organisation; requests for further contextual information (we discovered that the study was seed-funded by Northumbria University, and Morgan confirmed that Newcastle’s online services are provided in-house); further detail on aspects of the findings such as the communities most disadvantaged by the shift to digital by default, and the extent to which they might be generalisable across all UK local authorities. The conversation continued amongst those on campus when we switched venue for a round of drinks in a pub near Waverley Station. After Morgan left us to catch his train and others in the party also headed home, six of us stayed out to enjoy further social time together over supper at Holyrood 9a.
To find out more about the project that Morgan presented to us, please see the write-up that has been accepted for publication: Harvey, M., Hastings, D. & Chowdhury, G. (in press). Understanding the costs and challenges of the digital divide through UK council services, Journal of Information Science. Copies of the manuscript can be freely downloaded from two university repositories: