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Posted by Sarah Brown on 19 Feb '21

Digital Technology - demon or angel?

Is the rise of the internet a good or bad thing? Positive examples of how it is being used and how to get the most from it.

Image by Brian Cragun on Pixabay

When I wrote a blog in 2013 titled "Digital revolution – a triumph or a threat to the most disadvantaged?" it discussed the number of adults using the internet daily. It had more than doubled in the seven years from 2006 to 36 million adults (73%) use the internet every day up from 35%. Another seven years on in Jan-Feb 2020, ONS figures show that even before the Pandemic, 46.6 million people, i.e. 89%, were using it daily.

In January to February 2020, 96% of households in Great Britain had internet access, up from 93% in 2019 and 57% in 2006 when comparable records began. Internet connections in homes with one adult aged 65 years and over have increased by seven percentage points since 2019 to 80%; these households still had the lowest proportion of internet connections. Even in Jan/Feb 2020, before the Pandemic, 87% of all adults had shopped online within the last 12 months, up from 53% in 2008; those aged 65 years and over had the highest growth, rising from 16% to 65% over the period.

And seven years ago, I was expressing the concern that for the poorest and most excluded, the digital era seemed to be excluding them even more. I asked then should we celebrate or worry about the digital revolution? The exclusion has become starker and raises issues beyond access to laptops and digital devices. Data quality and quantity are now critical to inclusion.

According to a BBC report based on information from Openreach UK, internet data use more than doubled in 2020, as people stayed home during the coronavirus pandemic. Openreach customers consumed 50,000 petabytes of data in 2020, compared to 22,000 in 2019. And on Boxing Day, their users consumed a record 210 petabytes, the busiest ever day on the network for broadband users.

A mix of video calls to get in touch with family and friends and TV streaming and gaming downloads were contributing factors to the 26 December record, it said.

Ofcom research suggests that adults have averaged a record 4 hours a day, a quarter of their waking day, online in the Pandemic. Zoom, the virtual meeting platform, grew from 659,000 UK adults to reach 13 million adults from January to April 2020 – a rise of almost 2,000%.

Sites and apps such as YouTube, Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok, which allow people to create, upload and share videos online, have never been so popular. Nine in 10 online adults, and almost all older children aged 8-15, used at least one of these websites and apps in the last year, with many watching videos several times a day. Video-sharing and live streaming during the Covid-19 Pandemic has also provided a valued means for people to stay in touch, keep informed, and boost their morale. For example, millions have watched and participated in Joe Wicks' PE with Joe daily on YouTube; Twitch hosted a Stream Aid charity music event to raise money for the fight against Coronavirus, and TikTok streamed a live Q&A with World Health Organisation experts.

People are also creating and broadcasting their own content. Two in five adults (40%) and 59% of older children who use video-sharing sites and apps now create and upload their own videos, driving an explosion in short-form, user-generated content.

Ofcom's study shows that, before the Covid-19 Pandemic, many people moved away from more established forms of communication – particularly landline calls and SMS text messages – and adopted newer methods.

In the 12 months to February 2020, substantially more online adults were sending daily text messages using a variety of online messaging platforms (52%), such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, than using SMS (41%) or email (26%). Daily use of online voice calls (31%) was only slightly lower than mobile calls (38%).

The Pandemic appears to have accelerated the adoption of online services to keep in touch with friends and family. More than seven in 10 online adults in the UK are now making video calls at least weekly, up from 35% pre-lockdown. This trend is particularly noticeable among older internet users. The proportion of online adults aged 65+ who make a least one video-call each week increased from 22% in February 2020 to 61% by May 2020.

The proportion of UK adults who used established online services to make video calls at least weekly during lockdown – with WhatsApp reaching 49% in May (up from 20% in February); Facebook Messenger 41% (from 18%); and FaceTime 30% (from 13%).).

But the most dramatic increases have been in the use of Zoom (which reached 659,000 adult internet users in January and 13 million in April), Microsoft Teams (3 million versus 6.5 million) and Houseparty (175,000 versus 4 million).

While there are potential problems, many organisations have considered what they want to achieve and found ways to use technology to achieve their outcomes.

The following are three stories that include the potential benefits of digital technology.

Max wears his order of merit medal from the PDSA Photograph: Stuart Holmes/PDSA/PA

A shaggy dog story for pandemic times

Thirteen-year-old Max, an English Springer Spaniel, is being awarded the PDSA Order of Merit – the animal equivalent of the OBE – at a special virtual ceremony today (Friday 19 February) for his outstanding contribution to society.

Max will be the first-ever pet to receive a PDSA Order of Merit since its inception in 2014. All 32 dogs and horses that have received the medal previously have been specifically trained to perform roles in society, including Police Dogs and Horses, Medical Detection Dogs and Search and Rescue Dogs.

Max's positive and life-altering impact on the wellbeing of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide is unprecedented. His popularity as a social media figure not only provides a feel-good factor but has also supported many people through dark and difficult times, even more so through the Pandemic.

Since 2017, Max has met over 10,000 people through personal meet-and-greets, charity walks, public appearances, school visits and book signings and helped to raise nearly £300,000 for several charities, including PDSA.

Max's Story

In 2006, Max's owner, Kerry Irving, was the victim of a road traffic accident, which left the fit, outdoor-loving 46-year-old, with chronic neck and back pain unable to walk. Kerry's mental health deteriorated as a result, and he was diagnosed with severe depression. Two years after the accident, Kerry met Max and the close bond they developed turned his life around and gave him a reason to walk again. Twelve months after the pair met and began their friendship, they took on climbing Ben Nevis – a challenge that proved how far they had come together.

Kerry – a keen amateur photographer – started to chart Max's exploits enjoying his walks in the Lake District on his Facebook page. Followers grew as more people visited the page to enjoy Max's adventures, prompting Kerry to dedicate the entire page to him, renaming it 'Max out in the Lakes'.

Kerry received hundreds of requests from Facebook fans to meet Max and Kerry was happy to oblige. To support this, Max trained as a therapy dog with Assistance Dogs UK in 2016, so he could make special visits to schools, hospitals and hospices. Max's popularity was so great that Kerry began organising walks for charity, enabling large groups of people to come together and meet him while also building a support network of 'Max fans'.

In 2018, alongside his 'brother', Springer Spaniel Paddy, who Kerry added to his family in 2017, Max received the PDSA Commendation. The citation read 'For providing support in recovery and enriching the lives of many others', which recognised how the dogs had helped their owner and this valuable community outreach activity.

Max is also the first animal to receive a PDSA Commendation and a PDSA Order of Merit due to his incredible role in promoting the positive contribution animals make to human lives.

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, Max has been invaluable in providing comfort, hope and support to thousands of social media followers, who were able to join him on his daily walks via Facebook Live.

Max's owner, Kerry Irving, said: "When I was at my lowest, Max became my reason to live, and he continues to make me smile every day. Being able to share the support, comfort and joy that Max brings to thousands of people has been a privilege.

"We receive daily messages from people all over the world, saying how Max's adventures make them smile and bring joy to their life. Each has their own personal story. I have met soldiers who served in Afghanistan who say they used to look at Max's page to remind them of home. I've also received messages from NHS staff working on the frontline during the Pandemic, who have found moments of peace and escape with Max. "It is a huge honour for Max to be awarded the PDSA Order of Merit. He is extremely deserving of this award and I am immensely proud of him."

The tale of the lunch club

The changing impact of technology can be illustrated by thinking about something as simple as a lunch club for the elderly. Up to the nineteenth century, communication about a meeting to have lunch together would have been by word of mouth, maybe meeting at the church or the shop. The funding by money or in-kind might have been from the church or the lord of the manor.

With the invention of the telephone, potentially people could be rung to be reminded. Between lunches, the old people could keep in contact by phone. Of course, this was the beginning of some people's exclusion because of their limited access to technology. Phone ownership was not common for almost a century after it was invented unless you were well off. Middle-class volunteers could be coordinated by phone, but there was little impact on how the lunch might be funded or probably for many attendees.

It took almost 100 years for the next giant leap forward, the launch of the digital revolution – the era of the web – the static web. Generally, broadcast from one to many through a website or email. This did allow a significant step forward in fundraising – "the donate now" button on the website, which continues to be the digital method that still attracts the most funds. However, again access and impact were initially limited unless the children of the old people might learn about the lunch club and tell their parents.

The social web has come next. People at the lunch club have been able to chat on Facebook so the group can exist beyond the lunch. Even old technology like the phone has developed and using teleconference technology, isolated old people can feel included.

And so to the third age of the digital world, the mobile web where you can check when the lunch club is on using your mobile, book and order your food, take a photo at the lunch that you share then and there. Someone can even donate over the phone to support the lunch their mother attends.

With Covid and lockdown, the potential could be for a virtual lunch club with food delivered and everyone sharing online. I am not sure it has happened in that context. Still, it certainly has many people sharing food with their friends and family virtually, even on Christmas day. Easy to do with Facebook, you can create a room to instantly connect with other members via video chat.

Changing organisations

The multiple ways to communicate make it easier to meet multiple audiences' needs, provide ways of increasing social impact and tracking it, and are accessible to many at often just the 'cost' of the time to do it.

It also makes it easier for organisations to share best practice. Catalyst has launched a new service to help charities reuse and learn from one another's use of technology. They're assisting charities to work together by sharing their knowledge around common services and practices that already exist and work. So far, they have 25 recipes contributed by 15 organisations. They provide the ingredients that are generally off the shelf bits of software and how they put them together. However, they also include more basic solutions such as how to use a mobile phone to get consent. The examples are practical, and there are risks listed and a contact for each if you want more information

Recipes include:

  • Booking appointments
  • Collecting consent by text message
  • Training and supporting staff to use a new tool
  • Supporting volunteer and staff communities remotely
  • Bringing all incoming communications into one place
  • Facilitating remote cooking activities for young people to reduce social isolation and loneliness
  • Matching volunteers to residents for shopping, errands and support with hobbies
  • Providing devices and training to increase digital inclusion
  • Providing group support using video meetings

This sharing is invaluable, so I hope more organisations provide examples for everyone to access.


So what do I conclude? The same as seven years ago – like anything, the digital era provides opportunities and threats, so charities and, in fact, any type of organisation need to capitalise on all the available tools. Start with a simple digital audit, potentially creating a strategy with the Digital Prioritiser© and a plan with the Digital Marketing Discovery Process© . However you need to remember there will always be people who don't have phones, don't have computers and need to talk to real people.

Read more about the use of technology - good and bad:

How to change the world with marketing not charity

Technology v people - playing to their strengths

Not all innovation is good!

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Tags: charity pandemic strategy