Digital divide. Latop on desk

Challenging the digital divide – how 2020 is exposing challenges in access to information

08 January 2021 • Lauren Harding, senior marketing officer

‘Tech-celleration’ has taken place in 2020. According to a McKinsey survey published in October 2020, “COVID-19 has pushed companies over the technology tipping point—and transformed business forever”.

OpenAthens international sales manager, Kieran Prince and technical consultant Adam Snook, look at how this pace of change has impacted the information industry for publishers, libraries and users alike.

Publishers are having to adapt content to appeal to a wider, and more dispersed audience, whilst tackling the commercial challenges of operating a business in a pandemic.

The rise of remote

Covid-19 has been a catalyst in an experiment that would never have taken place: how to move education across the world online and out of the classroom.

Tom Standage, The Economist’s deputy editor, made mention of the huge changes in the global education sector as a result of the pandemic. He commented on this as a key outcome of 2020 in a recent webinar looking ahead to the world in 2021.

The enormous draw on human and technical resources as hundreds of thousands of people simultaneously, within weeks, moved to work or study from home gave rise to increased demand for remote and, as far as possible, seamless access.

As Kieran states: “With the current situation there has been an exponential increase in demand for remote access. It’s more important than ever [for publishers] to provide reliable access to users. This was the case even before the events of 2020.”

Libraries rising to the challenge

One organization which very quickly faced the huge task of moving its staff and researchers online and requiring the immediate set-up of a completely new process was the Museum of London.

Librarian Lluis Tembleque Teres reflects:

“Historically there had not been much reliance on electronic resources among users at the Museum of London’s Library, but that all changed overnight with the pandemic.”

The library’s vision for creating remote access was to make the resources relevant and accessible to everyone in the museum. The library can now operate as a true knowledge hub, with online information shared regardless of location.

Lluis describes the results: “Previously, research resources offered by the library were only accessed at museum sites; now we have a chance to promote databases that may have been often underused.”

Going forward the library has the capability to reach fresh audiences within the institution. The library is currently extending its provisions of online resources by taking advantage of free trials and purchasing new e-books.

The information access gap

However, this mass remote migration has exposed a new inequality marker.

With employees, researchers and students working from centralized locations – workplace or education settings, the lack of home access to devices and infrastructure was previously hidden from sight.

This disparity is referred to as the ‘digital divide’. defines this as: “the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and communications technology, and those that don’t or have restricted access. This technology can include telephone, television, personal computers and the Internet.”

Publishers can invest in content creation and providing more resources and free to access resources, libraries can make systems available to facilitate access and can curate materials.

But, if users cannot get online because access is complex and restrictive or because they do not have access to compatible, up to date devices, or internet connection, then the access chain is broken.

One example of an organization which has adapted is the University of Denver Libraries. Associate dean for student and scholar services, Carrie Forbes: “We started to offer ‘scanning as a service’ for staff and students that needed it; then from July we started a curb side pick-up service for students who could not leave their homes.”

The world is not a level playing field

The United Nations’ secretary-general Antonio Guterres highlighted the issue faced on a global scale in a statement on 1 September 2020:

“Even before the pandemic, around one fifth of young people were not in employment, education or training.  Now, around one third of them are unable to access remote learning.  School children from the poorest households and those in rural areas are by far the most likely to miss out.  They are among nearly half the world’s people who cannot log on to the Internet.  And this digital divide is greater for young women.  The situation of children and young people is a crisis within a crisis during this pandemic.”

The instant information access many of us take for granted is a first world luxury.

In 2019, 87 percent of people were using the Internet in developed countries, compared with 47 per cent in developing countries. (Source: International Telecommunications Union)

Within countries at a more micro level there is evidence of further digital exclusion. It also coincides with social deprivation.

The increase of home education and blended learning models and how they are embedding into everyday life has enormous implications on already excluded and disadvantaged communities. This is not just an issue for developing countries.

The Guardian reported in April 2020 that in the UK: “Lockdown is creating a stark digital divide in the UK, with 1.9 million households with no access to the internet and tens of millions more reliant on pay-as-you-go services to make phone calls or access healthcare, education and benefits online.”

Some institutions were ahead of the curve when the pandemic hit, already having schemes in place to support those who, for whatever reason, could not utilize the full range of library services. One of these was Iowa State University. Interim dean of the library, Hilary Seo explains: “We had had a tech lending program in place for years. We had a plan where staff could get access to ‘hot spots’ and crowdsourcing areas. The University wanted to keep everyone working – including students.”

Can seamless global access ever be a reality? 

Even without the implications of digital inclusion, access-for-all is hampered by the complexities around signing onto resources which facilitate study and research. Publishers face challenges to implement sign-on solutions which enhance their readers’ experience rather than acting as an obstructive gateway.

“We’re seeing small and medium publishers struggling to move to SSO [single sign-on]. They often don’t have the budgets and resources to invest in systems and skills. In other words, because they have smaller teams their web and app developers don’t necessarily know about identity or access management.

“Implementing SAML [security assertion markup language] requires niche expertise. There are open source solutions but it can be a complicated process,” explains Adam.

“The issues around access need to be future-proofed. It’s not something that is going to go away when we get beyond Covid 19.

“SAML may be considered the future of authentication despite barriers to implementation. Federated access is growing rapidly as a solution and there are collaborative initiatives emerging to support institutions overcome these challenges. Asi@ Connect is an EU-funded initiative designed to help bridge the digital divide across the Asia Pacific region. It is helping universities to adopt SAML protocols.

“By joining one federation publishers can join all national federations around the world through one piece of software. This negates the need to set up peer-to-peer links.”

The implications for publishers  

Indeed, while libraries had to move very quickly in the Spring of this year to support teaching staff and students alike to ensure access to research and study resources online; publishers faced their own challenges. The impact on advertising revenues with the simultaneous move from print to online created a paradigm shift for the publishing community.

The focus for publishers now is how to navigate the new world order in raising the stakes to create stand out and highly visible content which retains and attracts readership audiences while maintaining commercial viability.

Publishers need to serve multiple stakeholders, their users, libraries as key influencers and subscribers and brands and companies which provide much needed financial support.

The OpenAthens response to the digital divide

The issues are complex and fast changing and will no doubt continue into 2021 and beyond.

With a team of over 50 people, half of whom are developers, we are now a more agile organization than ever before. Products are continuously being enhanced and upgrades are issued on a two-weekly cycle alongside customer feedback and requests.

We’ve invested in streamlining the onboarding process for publishers to provide practical support which helps both large and smaller organizations alike. We proactively consult with our publisher clients when we are looking at integration.

Agility has been the buzz word for the OpenAthens team in 2020, working with the NHS in its response to Covid.

Health Education England and NICE (the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) recognized that NHS staff being reassigned from other trusts to Nightingale hospitals would need to access vital information. There was also a possibility that non-NHS staff seconded from commercial organizations might require access.

The OpenAthens team met the challenge to help NHS staff on how to enable remote access to medical information for these users.

Mark Salmon, Deputy Director Evidence Resources, NICE said:

“Many thanks to the OpenAthens team for their rapid and proactive approach to problem solving during this unprecedented time. This has ensured that NHS Staff have continued access to essential medical, health and social care information resources in their fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, and uninterrupted access to services for OpenAthens administrators, utilizing the new secure multi-location verification technology, who were shifted to home working at short notice.”

The future call to action

There is a debate to be had in the industry which does not just focus on individual issues. It’s clear the digital divide represents a global issue which should not be ignored. Information access is more than having an internet-enabled device. As a portal to education, information exchange and knowledge, we must all rise to the challenge of addressing and solving issues as a collaborative and inclusive international community.

Typing on laptop close up of hands