Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 19 November 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Digital Literacy in Adults: Discussion
The purpose of this part of the meeting is to have an engagement with stakeholders on digital literacy in adults. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Elizabeth Waters from An Cosán; Mr. George Ryan, chief operating officer, FIT Limited; Dr. Alice Mathers, head of research, the Good Things Foundation; Mr. James Bryant, academic and Trinity College Dublin graduate; Mr. Kevin Marshall, Microsoft Ireland; and Mr. Bill Morrissey, principal officer, and Ms Caroline Henry, assistant principal officer, Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. I will invite witnesses to make a brief opening statement of up to three minutes, which will be followed by an engagement with members of the committee.
By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Any opening statements made to the committee will be published on its website after this meeting.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Some of the members of the committee have priority questions for the Minister for Education and Skills in the Dáil Chamber at the moment so, unfortunately, they cannot be here. They convey their apologies and may get back in before the end of the session. I invite Ms Waters to make her presentation.
Ms Elizabeth Waters:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it today. For more than 30 years, An Cosán has been committed to empowering disadvantaged individuals to achieve their potential in Tallaght west.
Recently we scaled up our impact throughout the country using technology to connect entire communities to learning across Ireland. As a nation, we hold a top ten position globally in our proportion of STEM graduates from third level. That is an amazing statistic, but that needs to be set against the fact that only 48% of individuals have at least basic digital skills, which means that 52% do not. This is one of the lowest levels in the EU. The EU average is 57%. We are facing a digital divide of catastrophic proportions.
Globally, entire sectors of employment are threatened by digital innovation. One third of jobs in Ireland in agriculture, retail, transport, hospitality, manufacturing and low-paid jobs in the public sector are all at high risk of digital disruption. Today our Government is rapidly accelerating online delivery of public services, yet more than 40% of our citizens are disconnected or digitally disadvantaged. As ever those with lower levels of education are most impacted. The World Economic Forum has pointed to the need for retraining existing workforces, a proactive approach to their lifelong learning, and governments rapidly and creatively crafting a supportive environment to assist individual and organisational efforts.
An Cosán has been seriously concerned by the digital divide but we knew we could not tackle the issue alone; it required a collaborative approach. We have developed a very interesting model, which is a tripartite relationship across corporate, community and public sectors. Through collaboration, we create impact and are best placed to solve complex social questions. In the past two years, An Cosán has joined forces with top global companies, creating a model of partnership to tackle social issues. We have harnessed our resources and developed a strategic digital pathways framework and programme to significantly improve the digital skills of all our citizens and people in the workplace. We are discussing with SOLAS how the framework might align with and support further education and training provision.
In our submission, we have made a number of recommendations and I will focus on just two. We need a whole-society approach to a whole-society problem. We need to adopt that collaborative, cross-sectoral, integrated and strategic approach to bring all of the resources of the corporate, public and community sectors together to solve the digital divide problems we are facing.
We also recommend having a new Irish digital champion to spearhead a campaign, as we did years ago on literacy, to make people aware that we are facing a tsunami. Such a digital champion should encourage Irish citizens to check their digital skills to become digitally competent. Ireland could be an exemplar of how being a digitally competent nation appears. Alternatively, we could be like the UK where the digital skills gap is going to cost that country £141 billion. That is not where we want to go, but we need to act quickly.
Mr. George Ryan:
I thank the committee for the invitation to make a submission on this important topic and for inviting FIT to the meeting. The presentation we just heard was very impressive.
FIT works in close collaboration with SOLAS and ETBs in order that diverse jobseekers can access quality ICT training programmes and more recently apprenticeships. FIT has also developed digital literacy programmes with the support of the private sector, global foundations, the EU, the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment and SOLAS, which to date have benefited more than 30,000 people. These programmes demonstrate a practical low-cost train-the-trainer approach, supporting people with literacy and numeracy gaps, youth at risk, migrants, older people, farmers and those who want access to services, such as online banking.
In our submission, we highlighted Irish and EU policies that we believe are important in addressing digital literacy, including: the national digital strategy and its digital skills for citizens scheme, which I hope we will hear more about later; the further education and training, FET, strategy and its goal of active inclusion; the skills to advance and innovation through collaboration schemes from the Department of Education and Skills; and the EU’s key competencies for lifelong learning, one of which is digital and technology-based competency.
Our work on the ground has made us acutely aware that projects such as digital skills for citizens funded by the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment provided a constant glimmer of hope and connectivity for many communities during the darkest days of the recent recession.
In our submission, we reported on Ireland’s poor ranking and we have heard much about this. Ireland is 21st out of 33 countries for digital literacy, based on the OECD’s survey of adult skills, the PIAAC. We believe we can, and should, do much better. We are running behind neighbours such as the UK. We are embarrassed about that as a digital leader in our economic performance.
There are two key emerging threats that Ireland needs to act on urgently. First, one in three jobs in Ireland is at high risk due to the impact of digitalisation. Second, accelerating digitalisation in private and public service delivery has the potential to increase the digital divide. Instead we need to ensure that digitalisation is an enabler for people, particularly vulnerable workers and older people.
FIT has four recommendations that we believe merit the committee's consideration. The first we call "digi-community". We propose the development of a five-year digital inclusion strategy to invest in the building of social capital in communities, building on the experience of activists such as FIT and others, and the needs articulated by disadvantaged communities, whether they be neighbourhood-based or defined by other factors such as age, education, disability or ethnicity.
The second we named "digi-workforce". We propose the establishment of a targeted programme to upskill employees who are vulnerable due to their lack of digital literacy. Our third recommendation is to embed what we call a "digihub" or "digiclub" model, as we detailed in our submission, as a strand in the proposed digi-community and digi-workforce actions. It is not just skills training; it is engagement with and empowerment of the people doing the learning.
We believe that a digitally literate workforce and a community go hand-in-hand, and that the monitoring of progress is best judged in the round. We recommend the creation of a digital skills observatory to track progress across community and the workforce, to benchmark against peer nations and to evolve and appraise stakeholders.
I appreciate the opportunity to share our views and make our recommendations.
The next speaker is Dr. Alice Mathers of Good Things Foundation. I understand she has an aeroplane to catch. We will understand if she has to leave. If we have any questions for her, presumably we can send them on to her later.
Dr. Alice Mathers:
I am grateful for the invitation to appear before the committee. We appreciate being able to speak among these other experts.
Digital technology is transforming how we engage with the world around us at work and at home. As the world increasingly moves online, it is vital to ensure that no one is left behind thereby failing to benefit from the economic and social opportunities that digital can provide. Good Things Foundation is a social change charity, focused on digital inclusion, that works in the UK and Australia to help people lead better lives through digital. Our work has provided us with a good understanding of the importance of digital literacy in these contexts and the scale of the digital divide.
In the UK, 4.1 million adults have never used the Internet.
A further 7.8 million lack the essential digital skills needed for day-to-day life and 53% of the working population do not have the digital skills needed for work. It is estimated that 2.5 million adults are offline in Australia, with a further 4 million classed as limited users. An estimated 4 million Australians use their mobile phones to get online and have no fixed connection. Those with limited skills are more likely to live in rural areas while those online are more likely to be younger, wealthier and more educated. Those with disabilities are less likely to benefit from the digital age. Having a low income, low literacy and numeracy skills and low self-confidence are all compounding factors that can intensify digital exclusion. Key motivational barriers can also prevent people from engaging with digital, particularly those who think digital is not for them, who feel they lack support or who perceive it as too complicated or too expensive.
At Good Things Foundation, we believe that community organisations are best placed to deliver basic digital skills support to those most vulnerable to being excluded from the benefits of the digital age. We have developed a highly effective, mission-led, scaled operational model that works collaboratively with thousands of local community organisations to deliver digitallearning. This is teamed with a blended model of online learning content and offline support. In the UK, Good Things Foundation co-ordinates the Online Centres Network comprising more than 5,000 hyper-local grassroots organisations including community centres, small charities, work clubs, health centres, advice centres, libraries and even a fish and chip shop. All are independent of us and all are based in the heart of their communities.
Good Things Foundation Australia was established in 2017, having won an Australian Federal Government contract to create a digital inclusion network based on our learnings from the UK. In under two years, we were able to recruit a local network of more than 2,700 organisations. Such investment in digital skills support benefits not only individuals, but communities and society. It increases people's earning potential and their likelihood of finding employment, promotes financial inclusion and decreases loneliness and social isolation, as well as providing time and cost savings for both individuals and government services. As such, we believe that digital technology can be an enabler, can help us to solve some of our greatest social challenges and can change lives. We encourage the Irish Parliament to adopt a nationally co-ordinated, community-centred approach to increasing adult digital literacy.
Mr. James Bryant:
I thank the committee for the invitation to contribute on the important issue of digital literacy among adults. In my opening statement, I hope to highlight some of the main aspects of my written submission. Ireland is a highly-skilled, knowledge economy with a particularly high rate of ICT graduates. This is a direct result of an historically strong education system and the presence of many large multinational corporations that require such a labour force. By EU standards, according to the digital economy and society index, DESI, report, Ireland also benefits from an above-average level of broadband coverage and of female ICT specialists as a percentage of female employment. While these results all suggest a strong position for the country, a number of underlying problems may negatively impact Ireland if left unaddressed. For instance, while broadband coverage may be good, the price of broadband is a limiting factor in the take-up of such services. Additionally, as mentioned by previous speakers, approximately 50% of individuals lack least basic digital skills, with a similar number lacking at least basic software skills.
The differences between those who are highly technologically literate and those without basic digital skills are the foundation for the inequality known as the digital divide. The digital divide describes the sometimes severe cost a citizen can incur, economically or socially, by being unable to participate in a network society such as Ireland’s. This ranges from being unable to easily access government services to being significantly less employable and finding it difficult to upskill at the required rate. As the public and private sectors both further digitise, the exclusionary effect on those without basic digital literacy grows faster. New challenges such as job automation, artificial intelligence and algorithmic bias are becoming significant parts of our dialogue as an economy and society and this dialogue benefits from having a diverse, skilled citizenry participating in it.
In my written submission, I outline some of the main barriers to access for adults lacking digital skills, including having the ability, means, skills or motivation to engage with digital systems. However, gaps in digital literacy and the aforementioned barriers often have their foundations in societal inequalities and that these need to be addressed as part of any comprehensive solution. I make several suggestions for policymakers, which I am happy to discuss in more detail. These range from conditional subsidies or stimulation for lagging groups to encouraging open access for information. Overall, I believe Ireland is in a good position to try to close the gap in the digital divide, though this will depend heavily on sustained political will and private sector buy-in on a range of solutions, as detailed in submissions to this committee.
I thank the committee again for the invitation to make both written and oral submissions and I look forward to answering any questions on the topic where I can.
Mr. Kevin Marshall:
I am grateful for the opportunity to make an opening statement to the committee. We have made a written submission in response to the questions we were asked to address so I will simply go through the main points.
It is now commonplace to say that we live in a time of unprecedented technological change. The pace of advancement is greater than any time in human history. However, there are lessons from history that we can learn when thinking about how we develop an integrated strategy to move forward to develop skills across the board for all out citizens. This is not something new. The notion of technological unemployment was highlighted by John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s. He wrote about examples from the past of workers being displaced by new technologies such as water wheels, windmills, mechanical clocks, steam engines and so on.
There is now a growing movement within the technology area that is interested in the notion of artificial intelligence and how it is going to impact our lives now and into the future. A recent study by McKinsey highlighted the fact that between 40% and 50% of the workforce is currently affected by artificial intelligence and that this will increase over the next five years. More worryingly, it has been suggested that as many as 800 million workers could be displaced by artificial intelligence by 2030. This is hugely significant in the context of policies on the education of all of our citizens. A number of frameworks exist, which are worth highlighting, particularly the work done by the European Commission on DigiComp 2.1, which outlines a number of skills, strategies and competencies that are worth considering in the context of policy going forward. Reference is made to information and data literacy, communication, collaboration and safety.
I was struck by what was said by previous contributors on the challenges in basic literacy, of which I was unaware, to be honest. That creates an even greater challenge for us because to access all this fantastic technology and the courses that are available, people need to be able to engage with the material. In that context, there is an even greater need for an integrated strategy.
Over the past couple of months, we have been working with An Cosán to develop the digital stepping stones programme, an interesting and enlightening project. We will continue to work with An Cosán to improve outcomes by providing infrastructure and a curriculum that we feel is relevant to upskilling individuals across the country. We have provided more details on this in our written submission and I am happy to engage with the committee to discuss these issues further.
The final point I would make is that we need to pay attention to this and to develop an integrated policy and an implementation strategy that deals with all of these issues.
Mr. Bill Morrissey:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for the opportunity to contribute to this discussion. I am joined by my colleague, Ms Caroline Henry, who leads on the digital skills for citizens scheme.
A number of Departments are active in the area of digital literacy, including the Departments of Education and Skills and Business, Enterprise and Innovation, which focus on formal education, labour force participation and future skills.
The focus of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment in this area is on introducing non-onliners, those who have never used the Internet before, to use Internet and digital technologies. The objective is to provide these non-onliners opportunity to gain the basic skills and confidence to start their digital journey by removing some of the barriers, for example, fear and a lack of skills, trust and awareness of what being online can offer. Such benefits can include saving time and money, staying in touch with family and friends, enjoying a wider variety of hobbies and interests, staying up-to-date with news, accessing Government services and obviously being able to participate in education.
Since 2008, the Department has run two schemes designed to help those who have never used the Internet before. The first was the benefit scheme, which ran from 2008 to 2016, investing €8.4 million in providing basic training to 157,000 participants. This was replaced in 2017 by the digital skills for citizens scheme. The scheme provides free, informal, basic digital skills training, where people attending classes will learn the skills they need to take their first steps to getting online. Since training commenced in 2017, €4.8 million has been invested in providing basic digital skills to over 51,000 participants. The Department recognises that voluntary community and not-for-profit organisations are very well-placed to identify and encourage people within their communities who have not yet engaged with the Internet. In 2017, the Department entered into grant agreements with 15 voluntary community and not-for-profit organisations, including FIT, which is here today, to deliver such informal training on basic digital skills. Training classes are available for anyone who does not have the confidence, motivation or skills to reap the benefits of digital technologies. Training is targeted at people over 45 years of age, members of the farming communities, small business owners, the unemployed, persons with disabilities and other disadvantaged groups, but in reality, anyone who has not interacted with Internet technologies can go on the course. Classes take place in libraries, schools, community centres, marts and GAA clubs across all counties. They are advertised locally on the Department's website, with times, venues and content arranged to meet the needs of the participants. Each participant receives ten hours of training in a class of no more than ten people. An Internet-enabled device, a computer, laptop or tablet, is provided for use during the class, or if people wish they can bring their own devices. The class content is made up of six hours of compulsory modules, which include things like accessing emails, using search engines, accessing online government services, using apps, and then there are a further four hours of training that are tailored to meet the specific needs of the participants.
The Department also works closely with other Government Departments to provide relevant content for the online Government services aspect of the training. For example, our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine provided tutors with demonstration herd numbers for use on its ag food site. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has provided an interactive demonstration of their motor tax renewal application, and the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment has focused on the use of the Eircode finder. At the end of each training course, participants are asked to provide feedback by completing an online survey. Almost 20,000 people over the age of 65 have attended the classes, and some 6,500 from the farming community have also benefited from the training.
In addition to the work of the grantees, like FIT, in promoting awareness of the scheme and encouraging people to participate, the Department has promoted the scheme at the National Ploughing Championships and by distributing material through public participation networks, Citizens Information offices and the local authority broadband officer network. Training under the current scheme will continue until 2020. The Department is now looking at how best to move forward with the scheme in the context of the new national digital strategy being developed by the Department of the Taoiseach in partnership with stakeholder Departments and agencies. It is clear that much work remains to be done in this area, with a particular focus on scale, effectiveness and co-ordination of efforts.
I have a number of questions and they bounce between the different threads and the different contributions, so witnesses can pick up on what applies to them in terms of their contributions.
I understand if Dr. Mathers has to leave and I thank her for travelling over from the UK. We have heard lots of good things about her. That is why reached out, so we were delighted she could be here. I have been involved with lots of different digital organisations, charities and activists in the last few years since I have been a public representative. Part of me gets a bit frustrated, because I feel like we are repeating that cycle that we had with literacy many years ago, where we are just scraping off the people who we can motivate and engage with. I mention the issues of isolation and loneliness and people being able to engage with their doctors or with social welfare. Again, we are reaching people just to get them through the day. In the past year, I have become more aware that when it comes to digital literacy, the problem is going to be much bigger than it was in terms of literacy and being able to engage with democracy and the threat to democracy. Who actually builds the systems we are working within? When I think of that 52% of people, who do not have basic literacy skills, I wonder who they are. When we are collating that data, is there a demographic identifier of who makes up that 52%?
It feeds into what Mr. Bryant said earlier about a particularly high rate of ICT graduates. Again, who are those ICT graduates? We have to look at how that divide is set up. Sometimes, a number can look good, but actually it is just a really stark, gaping hole between the two different kinds of people that fit into either of those camps. I am wondering what we can do to impact the different levels of digital literacy so people can use it not only to engage in life, but to disseminate information that they are reading online and be able to know what is and is not a real article and whether it is peer-reviewed. What are we teaching people at that basic level?
Maybe Mr. Bryant can go a bit further into how AI and job automation are going to affect those with basic literacy skills. I know we have discussed this before, but I became really alarmed when I started reading some of the stuff that Mr. Bryant gave me about how algorithms are being built in the US that have that class, racial or gender bias and are even being used within the prison system to detect whether somebody will commit a crime in the future, a crime that has not even been committed. This all ties into who those ICT graduates are in the first place, and how we can change so people are not being let down by their digital literacy skills and by society or life generally but can instead engage in education and democracy without being discriminated against by algorithms.
I am wondering about fake news and democracy, and maybe Mr. Marshall can answer this question for me. Are people with low levels of literacy or digital literacy most susceptible to fake news and the threat to democracy, elections, health information and everything that comes with that? We have seen online all these dubious links between certain injections. Who is going to be most impacted by this type information, and how can we improve digital literacy to ensure that people can engage in a real way with that type of material?
What does a whole of Irish society approach look like? I know Ms Waters was speaking of the approach that was taken in relation to the Good Things Foundation, and maybe she could talk a little about what that actually looks like in an Irish context. I think that is it for now.
I do not have the requisite level of language around literacy. I think that is a problem for political representatives who know there is something major happening, but do not have enough of a language literacy level to be able to engage with people who can tell them what needs to happen to reduce that gap between digital literacy and literacy in general.
Dr. Alice Mathers:
Senator Ruane's range of questions are really critical at this time. I wanted to focus on a number of them. Who is most vulnerable and therefore what really works for them? What we have found through our work is that within communities where one does not have a lot of external influence, there has been an ever-decreasing amount of public and community support and a lack of employment opportunities.
There is a cycle of peer influence that goes on. I referred to the point of people deciding this is not for them because there is a real problem with younger people who come up through those communities and do not see people using digital technologies in a broad way to affect different areas of their lives. Through our work, one of the things we increasingly see is this idea of people who only use social media. People who have a smartphone will use a small amount of the apps that are already installed on the phone and they do not have the literacy or media literacy skills to do much more beyond that. Therefore, one of the most effective measures with that issue is peer influence. Working with community leaders and organisations that people trust is really critical in communities where people feel they have had a raw deal for a long time. The idea of external influences coming in and telling people what to do and how to do it is not an effective model. Online centres in the UK as a model always come out of a community need first and foremost, be that a lack of employment, poor mental health or the focus on loneliness and isolation and it is because digital technologies can be a solution to all those things that we see community organisations as being one of the most powerful routes to change.
Ms Elizabeth Waters:
What Dr. Mathers said is the truth. One of the things we would be aware of is to ask the question about who in Ireland is affected by the digital divide today. We work in disadvantaged communities right across the country and they are the same people we work with in west Tallaght. They are struggling with poverty and social exclusion every day. Their lives are somewhat depressed and chaotic and they struggle. They are full of fear with no self-confidence or self-belief. There is a lack of motivation. We know community organisations on the ground know how to take that on as an issue and change it. We can encourage people in and they will cross over the door. It takes courage to come in but we know our learners and we can work with them to build their confidence and skills. Some 48% of people in west Tallaght do not have access to a computer. They do not have one and they only have access to one when they come into us. Virtually every single one of them has a smartphone, however. Do they utilise it? No, they do not utilise it in any way close to the extent to which it could be used to support them. Can we build their digital skills? That is where we start.
With Accenture, we have built a most amazing assessment tool that Accenture has poured hundreds of thousands of euro into developing with us. That assessment tool is accessible and easy-to-use and we can encourage our learners to use it and to assess themselves. If we are talking about the skills gap, one of the things we need to be scared witless about is the lack of knowledge and understanding, particularly about safety and about people's digital footprint and digital identity. Many of the learners we work with do not have a clue about that. That is a key place to start. They can go on this assessment tool and when they get back their results they can be pointed in the direction of a range of resources that can either be used in a community, in a learning hub or on their own. They can be pointed towards how to engage and how to build their skills.
It is the same as the work we have been doing with literacy for years. If we remember how bad things were 20 to 30 years ago when NALA started, that is where we are today. We are excluding half of our adult population from actively participating in this new world. Basic digital skills are the first step. Then we need a progression pathway. That involves our work with Microsoft to see how we can build that pathway so there is a clear progression pathway. How would Future Now Digital's initiative that was referred to look like in Ireland? It would look like having a tripartite strong national relationship with the public sector, the corporate sector and the community sector with all the knowledge, skills and resources they are willing to employ to solve complex social problems. An Cosán is happy to support that process, as the Good Things Foundation has done, but it is key that we look to a way of having an integrated national solution to this national problem. We can do it. I do not know if Mr. Marshall thinks we can do it at a corporate level.
Mr. Kevin Marshall:
I agree with everything Ms Waters said. On the notion of fake news, none of us is immune to that and to being susceptible to what is out there, particularly as the world has changed so quickly and the information is coming at us so quickly. The more educated and well read one is at least reduces the opportunity to be taken in by fake news. Some of the bigger skills outside of regular curriculum we need to think about include this notion of problem solving and computational thinking, which is beginning to gain a bit of credence within our system. We have an incubation lab in Microsoft in Sandyford called the dream space. It has been open for about 18 months and to date we have had 20,000 students, both primary and secondary, come through the door. It is a three to three and a half hour engagement and the curriculum is tailored to the particular age group but we all talk about AI and the challenges therein, the good stuff associated with it and the notion of facial recognition and what that is and what it is not. Our ten year-olds are acutely aware of what those technologies are, more so than we are. Those types of ideas can be imparted to the likes of working with An Cosán and other organisations such as that. It is about education and we have to keep at it. We have to be more targeted and streamlined and we have to be a bit more fearful. These numbers are challenging, including the literacy numbers. We need a different way of thinking about this, a different national conversation on it.
Mr. George Ryan:
Our firm view is that this is a social inclusion issue. It is not just training and skills. It is an understanding of the effect this digitalisation is having and will increasingly have on people's lives, whether one is a person in a low income community who is struggling day-to-day or whether one is a worker who will be forgotten and will be out of work. We are advocates and activists for the development of communities and we view our digital inclusion and literacy activities in that context. They do not sit outside of people and the communities. In the last number of years of the recession, the climate for investment in communities changed. We witnessed a steep reduction in funding for community-based initiatives and worsening disadvantage and social problems. In this age, some parts of our society are becoming richer very quickly.
However, there is another part of society which has actually gone backwards in the past number of years. As others have said, this needs to be an integrated approach. It needs a timescale - a five-year strategy that can identify how to overcome these issues. It is important that people get an opportunity to learn as well in a peer-to-peer environment or an intergenerational environment. The latter environment works well. It has a similar attraction to people. I refer to where people not only can understand the skills but can debate among themselves what are they missing out on, what is the issue for them, where are they losing out and where can they benefit. They do that as peers and are supported in the context of a national integrated approach.
Mr. James Bryant:
I might break up the two main questions on how automation and artificial intelligence, AI, will affect jobs and algorithmic bias. I will look first at how AI will affect jobs. I use AI loosely because it has come to mean many different things, both to the technology sector and to the public. Many view automation in general like the invention of the railroad or the written language in that there was much fear around those inventions at the time. The agricultural sector was afraid that passing trains would cause cattle to stop breeding, something we, as we look back, think is quite silly. We will look back in many years' time and think many of our fears about automation were quite silly. However, it is not correct to compare it to such modest inventions. Rather, we should view it more as a cultural changing point. The move is more similar to that from the agricultural economy to the industrial economy. As Mr. Marshall stated earlier, there are great lessons to be taken from history. If we look back at that transformation, we see developments such as 12 years of formal education were necessary to bring someone from a farming background up to what was then considered the base-level minimum required education to be able to jump between jobs. Similarly, with such a high level of digitisation, one must look at a similar transformation in education, or even what we consider education, and the topics of lifelong learning in order to have people who are able to dynamically move between jobs, sectors and roles. The idea of digital literacy is not something we can confine to a single department or a single executive in a company. It is the responsibility of all citizens to be digitally literate, which is why it is so important that we are having this discussion today.
If we look at the highest-paid jobs, they usually require tertiary level degrees such as a masters of education or a PhD. The required level has been increasing over the past decades, as one would expect. Similarly, the entry-level requirements of education are also increasing. This is also set to increase over the coming decades. In the case of those who are most at risk of having their jobs automated, as mentioned by previous speakers, those working in agriculture, transport and factories, there is a real question as to how we as a society react to and pre-empt the massive automation that is predicted to be coming down the line within the next few decades. The primary solutions are to not only take the infrastructural approach of throwing ICT computers, laptops and facilities at people and saying, "Go and learn", but to take a more comprehensive look and to state that here are the skills and teachers one needs, the community centres necessary for it and the address of foundational inequalities in society that are causing this. As previous speakers mentioned, the community approach can often work quite well because one learns with one's peers and one is not expected to go on one's own and venture into uncharted territory when it comes to digital skills.
Second, I will touch on the topic of algorithmic bias that has been raised. There are many examples of this. It could be as simple as being on social media, seeing many articles and news sources that have similar opinions to oneself, and thinking one's opinions are mainstream opinions and they are reinforced. There are issues with this that large companies, such as Google and Microsoft, have tackled. If we look at another system, such as policing technologies, there are examples of policing technologies, the use of which is reasonably widespread in the United States, which direct police forces on where best to use their limited resources but this can be a self-fulfilling prophecy in that the most traditionally under-serviced regions experience slightly higher crime. This means that these regions are more likely to be policed and more people are more likely to be charged with crimes in these regions. Similarly, when one goes back and looks at the data set, it looks as though this model was correct and that one should police these regions even more. One can see how that would negatively affect different communities. Such algorithms are not always comprehensive and they will not necessarily look at aspects such as financial crime. They might be focused on violent crime. That is merely one example. When one looks at the idea of digital literacy, as the Senator mentioned, it is also important that policymakers, judges and administrators have these skills and understand not only the possibilities and the use cases but the limitations of such technology. They should be able to say that maybe this is not the place for statistical analysis and that it is important to have a human in the loop making final decisions in these cases.
Finally, this brings me back to the idea that one should not only educate those who are easy to educate. It is easy to say, if one looks at ICT graduates, that most of them are men with an interest in the sector from middle-class and more affluent backgrounds. While it is fantastic that we have such a high rate of ICT graduates, it should also be a real point of worry that 50% of citizens do not have basic digital literacy skills. It is a large divide. Working on ways to attract that 50%, not necessarily to specialist-level literacy but at least basic digital literacy, is of vital importance.
Mr. Bill Morrissey:
There are a number of points. Senator Ruane asked who are the persons lacking digital skills. I will point to the recent CSO 2019 information and community technology household survey to which we included a link in our submission. It points to age and social disadvantage. In terms of digital skills, I suspect they are the key dynamics. That has been our experience.
Ms Caroline Henry:
Stay-at-home mums. There are a couple of categories within the CSO statistics that show that. That is where we concentrate and that is where the targets for the digital skills programme came from. It was informed by the CSO statistics. That is why it was in every county. It is specifically for over 45s. It used be for over 65s. We felt there was a cohort of people being left behind by narrowing it that much and it was extended to over 45s and all of the other categories.
Mr. Bill Morrissey:
We would agree with our colleagues in An Cosán on the role played by community and voluntary groups in getting to people and encouraging them to engage with the technologies.
There is another form of literacy, which is media literacy. The Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, BAI, and the various media organisations in Ireland are working together on that particular issue.
The issue of Internet safety may have been raised. That is a module within the training that the digital skills for citizens scheme incorporates.
Ultimately, in discussions that have been ongoing about development of a new national digital strategy, this issue is quite a central one. It speaks to more co-ordination between Government bodies.
I have one immediate concern that springs to mind and then some wider questions. An immediate concern is looking to the figures, with only 48% having those basic digital literacy skills.
As I understand that 57% is the average across European countries, we are extraordinarily far beneath the European average. Looking at this, I think as well about the acceleration of initiatives such as MyGovID. Soon that is predominantly how we will access childcare; increasingly, it may become how we access medical appointments; it may become how we access driver licences and so on. What are the witnesses' concerns about our not bridging the gap? There is also the fact that the pace of a digital requirement from citizens is moving far faster, it seems, than the pace of skilling up citizens, giving them digital skills and empowering them. Are the witnesses concerned about the deepening of certain of the social, economic and other disadvantages we have across vital areas such as health, education and childcare? Are we in danger in the short term of a period of in fact exacerbating or accelerating disadvantage? What should be done about that? Do we need to provide non-digital alternatives alongside MyGovID during the bridging period for skills? That is a short-term question, and I ask it in the context of my membership of the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We have seen that accelerating of digital requirements.
We are policymakers, and policy consists always of decisions as to how we live together and the spaces we share. The online space is clearly a space we now share. Big debates are happening at the macro level which relate to exactly the work the witnesses talked about. The online space is not simply something that is happening; it is being created and driven. There is, for example, the general data protection regulation at a European level, with the idea that people's data and information belong to them. The web accessibility directive came in in September. This is the idea that websites should be usable by people, including those with a disability, at a basic level. There are these positive drivers and elements, which should be empowering. It is a matter of that route from digital literacy to digital empowerment. It is almost that we have this huge gap to bridge but we have quite far to go. I ask the witnesses to comment on how we go from digital literacy to digital empowerment. I ask this because we need people; it is not simply that people need these skills for employment. I was very interested to hear the witnesses' comments on employment. Again, I sit on the Joint Committee on Employment Affairs and Social Protection, and through the Chair I might find an opportunity to bring a complementary discussion to that committee on employment and the future of work. We need our social processes, decisions, policies and so on to reflect the diversity of society. We as policymakers need people to be digitally empowered.
The witnesses might build further on the question of the algorithmic bias. How do we ensure transparency for people in respect of how they are being algorithmically targeted? How do we ensure the push on diversity within that? There are also a few really practical things. One thing I would like the witnesses to comment on is community development. I was pleased to hear that much of it seems to be grants-driven. That is important and appropriate in order that we are not simply giving people a particular digital skill for a particular digital job which may exist now but might not exist or be relevant in six months' time but that we are giving people those slightly deeper needs-based skills. I think Dr. Mathers identified that people need to identify their needs, hopes and ambitions for the online space. How do we then make sure their needs drive it and that we have enough flexibility in the funding that is going to the grass roots? Perhaps the witnesses could talk about that. It is not just a matter of reaching out to tell everybody about a course they can do in order that they can get a job; it is a case of listening upwards a little more. I ask witnesses to comment on that.
I can see that there is some funding. It clearly needs to be scaled up immensely in the short term, given that Ireland is 10% behind the rest of Europe. One area I have identified, and it is an issue I have highlighted before in a couple of other fora and which complements the GDPR, is that we are now facing a period when Ireland will in fact, through our data protection law, be issuing some of the largest fines under data protection legislation and the GDPR. I suggest that a portion of that funding be ring-fenced for digital empowerment. That would be a way of including, as I said, a positive circular dynamic in order that it is not simply a matter of grants from companies and so forth but a matter of the fines going back into skilling people up to be more aware. Ms Waters mentioned the issue of people's own digital safety and digital empowerment, that they are able to mind their data and that we could remove a lot of the fear of engaging. This is a comment for Mr. Morrissey. When we talk about fear, there is fear that is justified and then fear that needs to be overcome. People can be apprehensive about their own skills and we must give them the encouragement to overcome that. Then there is also the matter of people being given the confidence and skills to be able to mind their own safety. When we go to the United States we see people taking out insurance against identity theft. People are just in a state of fear there and literally take out insurance in case their identify is stolen because they do not have the relevant skills. In Europe we have tools that people can use to guard and protect their digital footprint and their digital safety online. People feel able to use those and make them meaningful for themselves.
Those are just some of the areas I would love the witnesses to comment on. This is a hugely important area for all of us. We will come back to it, as I said. I might try to have a complementary discussion on employment, which I have not focused on. We have a committee on employment and I would love this to be a part of the debate on the future of work because it intersects with the four-day week and all those ideas of rethinking work in a positive way. I have talked enough so I will leave it at that.
The Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs has dealt a lot with digital safety issues for young people as well, so the issue crosses a number of committees. I will not ask any questions myself because my colleagues have asked some really good ones. We will just go to whoever would like to start in response to Senator Higgins's questions.
Dr. Alice Mathers:
I may have to leave after this response but I wanted to come back to Senator Higgins's point about skills not being the end point. That has always been our philosophy because the moment we get tied into focusing on a framework for measurements and success which is driven by the number of people who have the requisite-seeming skills for work at that point, we are already out of date. The other big thing about that is that it does nothing really to demonstrate what we all need, which is a lasting behavioural change to using digital positively in work and in life. Our model and the model of all the community organisations with which we work have been about that lasting behavioural change. It is a question of how one overcomes previous negative experiences, the feeling that one is being "done to", that digital is something one must accept. Increasingly, that is the story we hear time and time again from heavy users of a range of government services: "This is being done to me, and I am being sanctioned as a result." It is a matter of overcoming those engagements and solving the immediate crisis in order that people have the space to engage with digital differently. A lot of this, as a number of other speakers have mentioned, comes through peer-to-peer support and people who have been on a similar journey. We work a lot with digital champions, who are people who have come through that journey in their communities and can say that digital is about achieving one's personal goals in life, that it will change and particularly that it is critical that one is adaptable. Digital is not about using one programme or piece of software to do one task because that immediately places people in a point of vulnerability. It is about thinking of digital as helping people solve problems or achieve goals and that therefore digital is an ally. Teaching people how to have that mindset is as critical as teaching them the technical skills themselves. That is what community organisations are brilliant at doing.
Ms Elizabeth Waters:
May I just build on that? We talk all the time about inserting this into a lifelong learning context, which is absolutely crucial, and developing what we call a growth mindset, that is, that people begin to engage in a way that allows their minds to open up and to change their attitudes and behaviour.
That is what we call a growth mindset and we need to situate that. It is really important. There is a huge focus on digital skills for employment, but that is only one element of digital skills in our lives. It is for citizenship, engagement and participation in a totally different world that is in front of us. It is not just about skills, but about skills being set in a particular context that we have all agreed. I really liked the idea of digi-communities and digi-hubs. There is potential in having a really creative approach to this. We could take it on and get over and break down that divide if we had the commitment and the notion that we need to stop this catastrophe that is facing us. I am always surprised when people are surprised that it is facing us, but it is and we have to ask what are we going to do about it. This is the invitation to the State to come on side, get creative, think outside the box and let us get a new movement going.
Mr. George Ryan:
I second that wholeheartedly. I am delighted with Senator Alice Mary Higgins's questions and that she has come from a different committee to this one, because, as identified, this really cuts across a lot of different influencers in society. At the moment, Ireland is sleepwalking into this digital world, and having this committee and shining the light on this issue in itself is a very important opportunity. We see the glimmer of the candle in the window as being colleagues in communications and climate energy with their digital skills. It has kept a tiny hope alive, but we need to have a step change to digitally empower communities, as both my colleagues have said, and we need to again find and approach a flexibility in funding to help build a capacity of community. Are "capacity of communities" dirty words? Do we not invest in that anymore?
Mr. George Ryan:
Also we need to invest in mission-driven or advocacy-driven groups, so one can have groups concerned about an area or about an issue. We need to digitally empower them in different ways, and as my colleague said, maybe this can become the starting point for rolling this into a really effective and strong policy that we do not have at the moment and that we absolutely need. We need to be at the top of the class like Sweden and New Zealand, which are in pole position. I would like us to go ahead of others that are ahead of us at the moment, including England, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Why can we not be ahead of them as such a rich, digitally empowered economy?
Mr. James Bryant:
I might comment on the digitisation of Government services, in particular. Generally, digitisation of services that a wide number of people can make use of is a really great opportunity. It can be very cost effective and it can speed up traditionally quite slow bureaucratic services. The two greatest problems we see in other nations' examples are that often there is a motivation, a skills or a usage access barrier. On one hand, one has elements of the labour force who say they have always done it a certain way and who ask why there is a need to improve it, so one really has to prove to people and bring them on the journey of implementing digitisation. That is not just citizens but it is also members of the labour force implementing the systems.
On the usage filter, which is an access issue, it is a bit more obvious but the idea is that the people using and administering the system have to be skilled up and it is not a one-off piece of expenditure. It is a continuous process like upskilling in any other area. It takes a continued investment of both time and resources.
On the second point on how one equitably produces members of society that can contribute in both the algorithms themselves or other elements of digital society, it comes back to that main point of how the more people who are included within and who enjoy the benefits of a network, the more the costs of exclusion will grow, so that any system that is rolled out has to be done across all elements of society. As I said, it is not enough to educate the easy-to-educate in this area. It has to be done equitably.
A great example is the roll-out of computer science in the secondary school curriculum. We saw it rolled out to 40 schools, nine of which were DEIS schools, which is about a representative proportion. I would be very interested to see, as this increases and is rolled out on a wider basis and similar schemes are done, whether a same proportion is represented, because minimising costs should not necessarily be the priority. The priority should be helping citizens to upskill and become digitally literate.
Ms Caroline Henry:
We took on board the changes needed after the benefit programme. We stopped to review what was happening after training 157,000 people. We looked at how technology was changing and we looked to the community groups and the tutors at the time for feedback. Smartphones were the issue, as I think Ms Waters mentioned. A lot of people have technology in their pockets. They might not necessarily have a connection at home, but they have the facility and the wherewithal to do it. They just do not know how to use it. Part of the remit in doing the programme was to look at what citizens needed and what was going to make a difference to their daily lives. It was not about certification and it was not about getting them back in the workforce. It was about making a difference to their daily lives such as how they could save money and how they could engage with family. A lot of families had emigrated, particularly during the recession, and a lot of families had moved away. People needed to be able to stay in touch with them.
First, we looked at addressing the fear factor and not just at the anxiety. We looked at fear of being scammed online. We hear so much bad publicity about the dangers of being online that we do not necessarily hear the good news and what the benefits can be. That was part of the story that was missing. Certainly from my experience and having dealt with the programme for the last three years, some of the good news stories are fantastic. One does not hear them, but they make a huge difference to people's lives and it is something that we are conscious of and take on board, particularly with what Ms Waters said in relation to working with communities and the hard-to-reach people.
Also in devising the programme, we took on board what was said about the need people have. While the programme looks to address the fear and give people the basic skill, we also look to give the four hours of training to meet their needs, what it is they are interested in and what is going to make a difference to them. Part of the programme can be tailored to the farming community, and that is where the ten hours is based towards the farming package and what they can do online. That is what is going to interest them.
There are other community groups and maybe book clubs which want to know how to download books, how to read online and stuff like that. It is tailored to meet the needs of the citizens, and certainly in my experience some of the stories have been fantastic and it is making a difference but it is not enough. On its own it is not going to work. We are going to have to collaborate and move forward, but it is about getting the citizens to be engaged.
Ms Caroline Henry:
That is what we find as well as talking to the grantees, the people on the ground, who are reaching people. They all say that it is the mass bulletin. It is about bringing a friend. It is that mentality. We encourage people as well throughout the course to show somebody one thing they learned that will interest them. Hopefully, it will scale up. It is about bringing everybody along.
Mr. Kevin Marshall:
The notion of digital empowerment is key because it gives and creates choices for people across the spectrum. On the notion of artificial intelligence, algorithms and ethics, we need to be attuned to what is going on because it is all driven by data and there are good and bad data. Digital empowerment allows citizens to think about stuff. That is the national collective conversation we continually need to have. We also need to accelerate our thinking on some of this stuff. There are some interesting historical lessons, but the only difference is that the pace of change was not what it is now. As time is not necessarily on our side, we must really focus on this matter.
The debate has been enlightening and the issue needs our attention. As Mr. Marshall said, as time is not on our side, we need to see movement.
I thank everyone for his or her participation. I hope I am not breaching the general data protection regulation when I say it is Liz Waters' birthday today. I wll not ask her how old she is, but I thank her for her usual positive contribution to our discussion.