The Digital Divide in Northern Ireland: Horizon scan of digital policies

26 Jan 2022 Déarbhla Sloan    Last updated: 28 Jan 2022

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The aim of this article is to provide an overview of current policies and initiatives aimed at closing the digital divide in Northern Ireland. The article also provides a synopsis of digital priorities within the political arena.

Northern Ireland and the digital divide

Having the ability to access the internet can open a wide range of opportunities for individuals and communities especially when it comes to education, employment and socialising. The impact of the pandemic has intensified the digital poverty and the digital divide that exists in Northern Ireland. The digital divide has been simmering under the radar in Northern Ireland but the pandemic has highlighted the gap that exists in both accessing information and communication technologies and using those technologies.

There are currently a range of different policies, strategies and funds in place to help with digital connectivity in Northern Ireland however recent research carried out by RAISE, the research department within the Northern Ireland Assembly, notes that there is "difficulty in gathering information upon the initiatives which are operating to close the digital divide in NI.” The research paper further notes that the different strategies and policies demonstrate a strong financial commitment to close NI’s digital divide but “the digital divide cannot be fully addressed by policies purely focused on broadband infrastructure, when multiple causes evidencing digital exclusion exist.”

The aim of this article is to provide a summary overview of the current Public Sector digital policies and strategies. The end of the article examines digital related queries and comments made by political representatives, through Assembly Questions as well as in the media.

Programme for Government

There is no current Programme for Government in Northern Ireland. In 2021, The Executive Office undertook a consultation on a draft Programme for Government Outcomes Framework. A final PfG has not yet been published nor has a final PfG Outcomes Framework.

Once published the Executive notes the next Programme for Government, when published, will be “underpinned by a budget and supported by key Executive strategies including an investment strategy, an economic strategy and an anti-poverty strategy which together aim to build a strong and prosperous society by tackling disadvantage and achieving sustainable economic growth.”

Digital is addressed in two areas of the PfG Outcomes Framework document that was consulted on in early 2021:

  • Infrastructure Developing our digital, energy and physical infrastructure to provide opportunities to grow business in all areas. (Department for Infrastructure, Department for the Economy, Department of Finance)
  • Growth Growing the economy to attract and stimulate investment across Northern Ireland, including building sustainable investment, encouraging business start-ups and development through City and Growth Deals and supporting sustainable development of rural industries, including increased digital access. (Department for the Economy, Department of Finance, Department for Infrastructure, Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs)

The outcomes document also refers to the Digital Justice Strategy and the DAERA Digital Strategy.

The Digital Justice Strategy 2020-2025

The Strategy identifies priorities which seek to improve the experience of people in contact with the justice system under themes of digital communication and skills; a more effective justice system; and innovation. The strategy is underpinned by the principles of citizen engagement; collaboration; and modernisation.

Over the next 5 years, the strategy aims to address a range of issues, including but not limited to:

  • Staff Digital Capability and Skills
  • Increasing Digital Channels
  • Integration with other government services
  • Integration with other government services

Although there is recognition within this strategy of enhancing skills and increasing digital channels, there seems to be less focus on infrastructure and if the means are there via internet connectivity and access to technology.

DAERA Innovation Strategy

There does not seem to be a published DAERA Digital Strategy as noted in PfG however their Innovation Strategy 2020 – 2025 refers to digital innovation.

With reference to digital, the Innovation Strategy notes the aim of cultural change with DAERA through the establishment of an internal Innovation Unit and a Digital Innovation Hub to allow the importing and exporting of knowledge and insights from academia, the private sector, the third sector and the public (by autumn 2021).”

The Strategy refers to a DAERA Digital Transformation Strategy which will establish a physical Digital Innovation Hub, “and act as an “intelligent customer” for innovation. It will identify potentially relevant data sources (including where necessary, commissioning work to create data); commission Big Data analyses to yield sector relevant intelligence; translate complex data into accessible, digestible information that can be utilised by DAERA sector end users.” This strategy does not seem to be published as of yet.

Very little information on the DAERA Digital Strategy, when searching references to the DoF 2017-2021 strategy appears. However, there is reference to on the Agenda NI website to Deirdre Mussen, a Digital Transformation Consultant with Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Ms Mussen is the head of DAERA’s Digital Portfolio Management team and manages demand for ICT services across the department and wider public service, and is currently leading on DAERA’s Digital Transformation Programme, applying lean agile principles on an enterprise level and ensuring effective delivery of public services.

Although there are ideas throughout the strategy there is no solid reference to funds or exact outputs (i.e. a change to infrastructure etc) that will help close the digital divide).

10X Economy - An economic vision for a decade of innovation

On 11 May 2021, the Department for the Economy launched its economic vision for the next 10 years.

The paper sets out a vision for an economically prosperous Northern Ireland through innovation and makes reference to the identification of structural weaknesses and the impacts of Covid-19. It identifies a number of priority clusters including Digital, ICT and Creative Industries (e.g. Cyber Security) Fintech/ Financial Services Life and Health Sciences (e.g. Personalised Medicine) Agri-Tech Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (e.g. Composites).

With specific reference to digital connectivity and increasing access, the paper notes the need to Enhancing Digital Skills – Developing our Digital Spine.

The paper highlights the need for keeping pace with the rapid technological change in the global economy and that this will require transformation in the digital capabilities in Northern Ireland. The paper makes reference of the need to look at the digital skills of those living in Northern Ireland and the need to ensuring everyone has the capacity to participate and benefit from digital opportunities.

The paper recognises the need to work collaboratively across Government to increase digital skills for all.

The paper makes reference to the digital divide and recognise it as a challenge facing our society. In response to these challenges the paper makes reference to the use of Challenge Funds and ‘mission-orientated innovation’. It notes that other ideas for ways to “actively stimulate innovation and encourage collaboration between business, academia and government must also be leveraged, such as targeted accelerator programmes and more clustering activities.

The paper is very much visionary with no exact details on projects, funds or strategies but rather refers to Key milestones in the process beginning with:

  • Co-design groups working in partnership across all Divisions in the Department, preparing for our next business plan by the autumn; and
  • Our 2022/23 Business Plan will include a delivery plan for 10x and signal our direction of travel throughout our decade of innovation

Digital Transformation Service

The Department of Finance is responsible for the Digital Transformation Service (DTS) that aims to deliver the NICS Digital Transformation Programme and provide support and guidance to NICS Departments and other public sector organisations to ensure citizen facing services are transformed in a way which improves and simplifies government services. The Digital Transformation Programme and the Digital Transformation Team works towards ‘Digital First’ meaning new or redesigned services.

The DTS refers to Digital Inclusion and there is a Digital Inclusion Team that aims to promote a more digitally inclusive society.

The team work in partnership with organisations where the aim is to ensure that the internet is accessible to digitally excluded members of the community. The team works with a range of community-based champions across communities to organise events and initiatives.

According to the Digital Transformation Service “80% of Northern Ireland citizens have access to the internet and the target is a 1% increase each year for the next 2 years to ensure everyone can access any transactional services they are entitled to, more conveniently accessible and do the things they need to do.”

The team help to deliver the Go ON NI campaign highlights the benefits of being online and focuses on encouraging people to get online, addressing barriers, promoting the benefits of accessing the internet and seeing the convenience of online public services. The GO ON NI Team provide services and events free of charge.

There have been several events under this campaign including Safer Internet Week, Spring Online Week and Silver Surfers' Day, Get Online Week, Young at Heart Retirement Living exhibitions and Search Your Family Tree at PRONI. IT taster sessions and training is provided throughout the year by Go ON NI partners. Libraries NI provide free GOT IT and Go ON sessions covering topics such as basic IT skills, shopping online and iPad training. Supporting Communities also provide bespoke training sessions to community groups and those most digitally excluded within sheltered housing, a Digital Text Help scheme and the Connected Devices pilot.

The Strategic Investment Board

The Strategic Investment Board helps Government in planning and delivering investment projects. The four key responsibilities are to develop the Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland on behalf of the NI Executive,  develop and deliver programmes and projects on behalf of public bodies (i.e. Urban Villages), oversight of the Asset Management Unit as well as promoting reform and innovation.

The work of SIB falls under direction of Ministers and focuses on supporting the delivery of the objectives set-out within the Programme for Government.

SIB acts as a centre of expertise in the public sector on data and digital innovation and supports a wide range of clients and projects by providing strategic advice, project management and procurement support on:

  • delivery of next generation digital infrastructure for Northern Ireland
  • roll-out of digital technologies to transform our public services
  • use of advanced data science to enhance public sector decision-making
  • greater adoption of data and digital innovation in our public and private sector.

In 2016, Data Analytics Research & Exploitation (DARE) unit were established within SIB to support clients in areas of data engineering and advanced data science. DARE has particular expertise on:

  • implementation of appropriate digital and data technologies to deliver improved outcomes;
  • design and delivery of cloud-based data systems
  • use of advanced statistical modelling (including machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques) to extract maximum value from public sector data, particularly for forecasting and rapid scenario evaluation;
  • design and delivery of user-facing application for the public sector;
  • applications of Systems Dynamics Modeling as a distinct technique for understanding and modeling complexity in large and inter-related public sector systems.

DARE manages the £2.4m per annum Small Business Research Initiative (SBRI) programme in Northern Ireland on behalf of the Department for the Economy (DfE). SIB has worked with around 35 technology companies to deliver:

  • for DAERA, satellite imagery to detect cattle and sheep grazing on farms across Northern Ireland to improve animal welfare
  • for the Education Authority, sensor technologies and data analytics to improve pupil safety during home-to-school transport across Northern Ireland
  • for Belfast City Council, digital edge technologies and AI to detect and respond to anti-social behaviour in public parks across the city and encourage healthy use.
  • DARE designed and built detailed epidemiological models and contact tracing analytics as a member of the Expert Modelling Group of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and also input to UK government’s SAGE modeling group on COVID-19.

Alongside core DARE services, SIB provides specialist data and digital support on a longer-term basis:

  • a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) to Tourism NI.
  • a Chief Digital Information Officer (CDIO) to the Department of Health.
  • a Digital Innovation Commissioner for Belfast

Digital Catapult NI

SIB’s Data & Digital Group has responsibility Digital Catapult NI – the local hub of the UK Digital Catapult.

It helps businesses to leverage the opportunities being presented, particularly by artificial intelligence and immersive technology.

Digital Infrastructure Projects

Originally established to accelerate delivery of major ‘hard infrastructure’ projects, SIB is now a regional centre of expertise in delivery of major digital infrastructure.  This includes provision of technical advisory and programme/project management expertise for investments such as:

  • 5NINES, Northern Ireland’s first commercial carrier neutral data centre, providing hosting, servers, co-location & cloud services to Northern Ireland, Ireland and GB.
  • Project Stratum – the £165m broadband infrastructure project to extend access to superfast broadband services to 79,000 premises across Northern Ireland.

Investment Strategy for Northern Ireland - draft as of January 2021

The Executive Summary of the draft Investment Strategy for NI 2050 states that “High quality physical and digital infrastructure is the foundation of all modern economies and is required for a fair and just society”. The vision set out by the Northern Ireland Executive within the strategy recognises digitalisation and new technologies as challenges that face the current and future infrastructure. With regards to digital accessibility and technologies, the strategy states that there is an “urgent and growing need to harness technological and digital change to improve lives, protect our environment and to secure jobs for the future.”

Although the strategy mentions that “ability to take advantage of the opportunities of digital infrastructure and new technology will depend on us having sufficient relevant skills” there is limited to no recognition of how the teaching or upskilling of digital knowledge for all would or should be implemented.

Throughout the strategy there are several references to the importance of infrastructure, broadband and smart technologies with regards to the increasing number of public services that will be available online. As plans are made for public services, such as health and justice, to increase the number of their services that available online, the need to invest in upgrading the "digital infrastructure and systems to enable citizens to engage and transact effectively with public services" is acknowledged. The strategy refers to areas that will increasingly go digital, such as applying for a school place, renewing a license, paying fees or fines yet there is little recognition of the skills needed by all, as well as the accessibility to the correct technologies, to be able to use the digital public services. There is reference to investment in the education system but not specifically with regards to digital skills.

The Northern Ireland Assembly

The Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service has published a blog on the digital divide in Northern Ireland highlighting that “digital poverty and the digital divide that exists in Northern Ireland has become more apparent and exacerbated by impact of the Covid-19 pandemic… Through identifying three broad categories which characterise the Digital Divide, it demonstrates that this divide is not only a technological problem and that it is in fact an issue which has broader implications to society and the wider economy.”

The research piece recognises that there is no apparent overall strategy or policy in place with the aim to close the digital divide.

All Party Group on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

Purpose: To bring together Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and others with an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in Northern Ireland with the aim of raising awareness among MLAs of important developments in STEM, both technological and educational and how policy issues impact upon these areas. The APG will hold focussed meetings, with debates opened by guest speakers who are active in the fields of interest. (Last Meeting 13/9/21)

Assembly Questions

Several questions have been asked of various Executive Ministers with regards to closing the Digital Divide in Northern Ireland. The questions address a range of areas that need to have strategic policies and funding in order to address the gap. 

The areas include improving and increasing ICT education in schools, broadband download speed, the Shared Rural Network project, ensuring access to online Government services, the Digital Poverty Support Payment.

To read the details of the questions and the relevant answer, please see PDF attached to this article.

Belfast Digital Innovation Commissioner

Professor Mark Gillan is the interim Digital Innovation Commissioner. The Belfast Digital Innovation Commissioner is accountable to CEO of SIB and reports to the Chief Executive and Deputy Chief Executive of Belfast City Council.

Jayne Brady was originally appointed as the Digital Innovation Commissioner in September 2020 however after being appointed Head of NICS in mid-2021, the post remained vacant until Professor Gillan took up the role in September 2021. From the advertised job description, the main duties and responsibilities of the Digital Innovation Commissioner will be:

  • Lead the City’s innovation investment, building on progress already made, in service of inclusive economic growth, including responsibility for managing the Director of the Innovation District.
  • Lead the Executive Committee for Innovation City Belfast, developing and prioritising an updated innovation project portfolio including putting in place appropriate management arrangements, securing resources and mobilising and organising people. This will include maximizing funding opportunities across the public and private sectors, including the use of venture capital.
  • Familiarise her/himself with Belfast Region City Deal (BRCD) evolving innovation investment plans, and lead development and delivery of the forthcoming Digital Pillar project business cases in consultation with partner organisations.
  • Represent Belfast’s civic innovation ambition in consultation with investment partners in business, government and education and other stakeholders as the chief architect of a robust, inclusive and action-orientated innovation strategy with a strong commercial focus for Belfast City Council.
  • Report within an open, transparent and effective governance framework for the work, recognising the complex stakeholder management environment.
  • Establish national and international relationships and partnerships with innovation stakeholders and funding bodies.
  • Develop and manage effective relationships within the innovation ecosystem.

Political Parties

From initial searches on the internet there is no obvious connections between the aims of specific parties or MLAs to close the digital divide in Northern Ireland. Below are some of the results of searches from when a party did raise their concerns. Many of the concerns seem to be concentrating on access to internet.

DUP

Our Environment Strategy | Democratic Unionist Party

SDLP

SDLP MLA says '˜digital divide' in the North West must end | Derry Journal

McCrossan: Rural broadband must be prioritised – Derry Daily

McGlone Meets Department for the Economy Officials on Project Stratum

Sinn Féin

Searches show talks of the Digital Divide for the Republic of Ireland but little with regards to Northern Ireland.

Further reading

Digital Government Northern Ireland – Towards smarter public services

Helping to build a digital future for a new Northern Ireland - Education Technology

Digital Assist BIC

How to close the digital divide

An overview of the Digital Divide in Northern Ireland - Research Matters (assemblyresearchmatters.org)

Organisations - Connecting Scotland

McIlveen welcomes £1m investment in IT resources for voluntary youth sector

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