As the coronavirus crisis accelerates the rise of the digital economy, access to technology is increasingly vital. Maintaining social connections, accessing health and financial services, finding a job, applying for social benefits… Pretty much everything is now happening online. Yet according to a 2019 study by l’INSEE (French national institute for statistical and economic studies); one out of six people in France don’t use the internet and one out of three lack basic digital skills. To understand the challenges surrounding digital and social inclusion in the current context and the solutions to resolve them, we’ve met with Jean Deydier, CEO of WeTechCare, a social start-up that aims at closing the digital divide in France, Belgium and elsewhere in the world.
How did you become interested in digital inclusion?
After working for several years in IT, I decided to join the charity sector and took on the role of association president at Emmaüs Défi in 2009. [Emmaüs Défi is an association with the mission “to help the excluded to find, through work, a dignified place in society.”] When I started at Emmaüs, I discovered that a lot of the disadvantaged people we were helping had poor mobile habits. They used to buy prepaid cards in tobacco shops, which were 50 times more expensive than a standard monthly mobile subscription. Sometimes, they even preferred to skip meals than to give up their phone – which they saw as their last address, their last connection to society. That’s when I realised we needed to do something to make mobile services more accessible.
And what initiative did you implement while you were at Emmaüs?
We approached the French phone operator SFR who agreed to donate mobile recharge cards. From there, we (Emmaüs Défi) partnered with SFR and the City of Paris to set up “La Téléphonie Solidaire”, a programme that aimed to provide support for first-time usage, mobile access, equipment etc. The business model consisted of selling mobile recharge cards and recycled mobile equipment three times cheaper than their normal price. Given the programme’s success in Paris, we decided to extend it to the rest of the country. In 2013, we created a new structure called Emmaus Connect. The objective was to open local reception centers in various cities in France (in partnership with local charities), to provide support to people throughout the country. Today, Emmaus Connect is the biggest organisation in France focused on mobile and digital inclusion: it supports over 40,000 people every year.
What about WeTechCare? How did it come about?
About five or six years ago, there was a boom in digital usage, which led to the digitalisation of public services. As the momentum around digital technologies grew, we came to realise that developing a network of reception centers wasn’t viable anymore. In a reception center, you can only welcome up to 1,000-1,500 people. In order to help as many people as possible, we decided to adopt a new approach. In 2015, we launched “WeTechCare”, a social start-up that aims at empowering and growing a large community of helpers (NGOs, volunteers, businesses…) committed to supporting those impacted by digital exclusion. To achieve this, we created an online platform, called “Les bons clics”, that provides online tools and resources to all those who want to become helpers. On top of this, we publish in-depth studies and specialised guides on our media platform “Les Cahiers Numériques”, to raise awareness and encourage public and private providers of essential services (e.g. energy suppliers) to make their online services more accessible.
Today, we have a community of 23,000 digital caregivers with a growth of 400 new caregivers every week on Lesbonsclics. Finally, we also have a team of consultants who are in charge of accompanying these actors in the optimisation of their digital services.
Who is most affected by the digital divide in France and in Europe?
In France as well as in Europe, digital illiteracy is strongly influenced by socio-demographic factors, such as age. In Europe, about 65% of those aged 55 – 74 lack basic digital skills. In France, recent studies conducted by INSEE show that computer illiteracy affects only 5% of people below 45 years old, but concerns 35% of the 60 – 74 year olds, and up to 71% of the 75+ year olds. So from the age of 75, we see a dramatic increase in drop-off rates amongst the elderly, which is due to multiple factors, such as health issues (e.g. hearing and vision loss), speed of technological change and online safety concerns. Apart from age, education also has a great influence on digital literacy. 49% of non-graduates or holders of a primary school certificate (CEP) in France are affected by computer illiteracy – as opposed to only 3% of higher-education graduates (university graduates).
What’s more, in France and in Europe, there is an urban–rural digital divide, mainly due to the higher cost and risk linked with network deployment in less dense areas. As pointed out by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a State of the Union speech, 40% of people in European rural areas still don’t have access to fast broadband connections. The coronavirus crisis has shown that bridging this digital gap is a societal imperative, essential for the socio-economic empowerment of those residing outside of the large metropolitan areas.
While the coronavirus crisis has indeed widened the digital divide and inequalities between those who are digitally savvy and those who aren’t, it also represents a great opportunity, I think, to make progress on these issues.
What are some of the biggest challenges that must be overcome in order to make this digital inclusion a reality in France?
There are several challenges that we need to address. The first one is to provide assistance to the 7% or so of French people who are unable to gain their digital autonomy (due to age, severe disabilities, de-socialisation…) and need assistance to access basic online services (e.g. benefits, employment…). Then there are hundreds of millions of people who are in need of accompaniment in the acquisition of basic digital skills, such as the elderly, the less-educated and precarious populations (e.g. unemployed, women isolated with children, immigrants…). It’s hard to imagine the sheer amount of people who discover for the first time a keyboard or a computer mouse.
Finally, there’s a general phenomenon that has often been overlooked and that has to do with the little bit of help we all need to update our digital skills. With the speed of technological change, app updates happen every day and require just as many skill updates. These updates, together with the demultiplication of information, are posing growing challenges to us, users, in terms of access to information, evaluating the quality of online information, protecting our personal data… That’s why, at WeTechCare, we are seeking to verticalise our activity, so we are able to address everyone’s needs. To do so, we are currently creating short training programmes, from a couple of minutes to 30-40 hours long, so that anyone can update their digital skills for free and at any time.
Has the coronavirus crisis widened the digital divide ?
While the coronavirus crisis has indeed widened the digital divide and inequalities between those who are digitally savvy and those who aren’t, it also represents a great opportunity, I think, to make progress on these issues. The crisis has led to a general awakening to the challenges of digital inclusion and to our dependency on technology. As a result of this awareness and growing pressure from the public, companies and states around the world have started to allocate more resources to foster digital inclusion. For instance, as part of its economic recovery plan, the French government has granted 250 million euros to this topic.
The social sector has also grown from this event. Before the pandemic, many non-governmental organisations and charities neglected technology; physical connections and face-to-face encounters were traditionally seen as far better solutions to help those in need and communicate empathy. But when the pandemic struck, digital technology became the only way for them to stay in touch with their public, so they started to perceive it in a more positive light and integrate it more in their operations. I believe this is really positive and is showing that we are moving in the right direction.