Dr Julian Thomas from Swinburne University talks about the recently released Australian Digital Inclusion Index.


We've been working on the Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which aims to provide a measure of digital inclusion in Australia, and one of the good things about it is it enables us to look at not just at a National level, but at a State and Regional level as well. So we can go quite local, and we can also look at how those things change across time. So we've provided probably the most detailed picture yet of digital inclusion in Australia, and that's really about the degree to which people can participate online.

We look at people's access to the internet, we look at the affordability side of things and we look at the digital ability side of things, so we see digital inclusion as a multi-dimensional thing. It's not just about access to infrastructure, it's not just about hardware or technology, it's also very much about - can people afford it, and what are they actually doing with it - are they getting the benefits of it?

The findings I think are quite striking because what we find is that digital inclusion in Australia is tracking at a moderate level, and it's improving over time, but it's very unevenly distributed. So if we look at more disadvantaged parts of Australia, if we look at regional Australia, we find outcomes are consistently worse than they are in big cities. The index shows that while access is getting better, so people are using the internet more, and are able to do so, and digital ability is improving, albeit from a low base, we are concerned about affordability, because on that dimension of inclusion that's declining.

It's interesting because in fact the cost of data has declined but what's happening there is that while we're paying less as it were per megabyte, or per gigabyte, because the internet's become such a critical part of everyday life we're using more of it. So although the actual cost's declining it's an increasing proportion of household income, as I say that's really all about the fact that it's now pretty much essential for lots of what people do.

Well, Queensland is interesting in a number of ways, it's a very diverse state so we see very high outcomes for digital inclusion in parts of Brisbane, well ahead of the rest of the state and right up there with the strongest results nationally. The western suburbs of Brisbane in particular show very high outcomes for digital inclusion, but there are other parts of the state, there are some regions which score much more poorly. It's a little bit of a South to North story, so in very general terms the further North you go the lower the digital inclusion outcomes we are seeing, and there are some parts of Queensland for example, north western Queensland that big region there, which are among the lowest scoring regions in Australia. So they're quite concerning, but there are lots of signs of good things happening in Queensland, so for example for some populations which are disadvantaged and traditionally score low in Digital Inclusion Index scores, such as people with disabilities, in Queensland it's interesting that that group seems to be doing much better than in other parts of Australia, for some of our key indicators.

The group of people who are aged over 65 are the lowest scoring group right across Australia and that's no different in Queensland. So digital inclusion, and we've known this for a while, is very much about age, it's also about education, so the less education you've got, the less digitally included you're likely to be, the less you're likely to be doing online, also it really does track income and employment as well. So those socio-economic factors profoundly shape the degree to which people are participating online, and what concerns us there of course is that those people should not be left falling further behind as a result of the very rapid technological change that we're seeing going on right across all kinds of areas of life. So this is the area of concern that while the digital divide might be narrowing in some respects, it can also be deepening, because the costs of not being online are increasing.

So it helps us pinpoint where we might do useful things. I think it also can help us gauge the effectiveness of interventions in this area - we've seen a lot of programs designed to do something positive about the digital divide, in Queensland and elsewhere, but one of the problems we've had is without really strong baseline data, it's difficult to know whether we're making a positive difference or not, once you allow for everything else that happens. It's such a fast moving area, so it's hard to evaluate, but when you have this kind of baseline it should be possible, should be easier for people at any rate, to tell whether what they're doing in a particular community, in a particular region or for a particular group of people, like people with disabilities or Indigenous Australians, has it made a positive difference or not? So we hope that it's useful for those purposes, we also hope it's useful for framing policy arguments: arguments for change at a governmental level, arguments for change at a corporate level, in terms of what commercial businesses can do in this space as well.

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