Friday, 4 Dec 2020

Panellists at MCI event optimistic about helping the vulnerable bridge digital divide

SINGAPORE – Engineering Good’s appeal for laptops for disadvantaged groups during the circuit breaker not only saw many such devices donated, but the public also volunteered their expertise.

The non-profit organisation on Monday (Nov 16) described its experience in April when schools turned to home-based learning.

Speaking at a dialogue at the Ministry of Communications and Information’s (MCI) Insights Conference, Engineering Good’s executive director Johann Annuar said its appeal for pre-owned laptops saw more than 3,000 laptops donated by individuals within two months.

The organisation, which was started in 2014 to help disadvantaged groups in the community by providing them access to technology, said the laptops were refurbished and distributed to low-income and vulnerable families.

Mr Johann is now hoping that the momentum will continue beyond the circuit breaker.

The non-profit is planning to provide classes for digital literacy, computer repair works and IT troubleshooting, and to wire up Wi-Fi in Housing Board blocks where there are public rental flats.

It also hopes to set up computer labs in areas with low-income families so other organisations can also use the space to run digital courses for the families.

Experts speaking at the dialogue said it is through initiatives like this that the digital divide, which pre-existed the Covid-19 pandemic, can be bridged.

The dialogue, moderated by MCI deputy secretary Aaron Maniam, also involved National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre chief executive officer Melissa Kwee, Touch Community Services chief executive James Tan and National Library Board (NLB) chief executive Ng Cher Pong.

Mr Johann and other speakers noted there has been an outpouring of support for the low-income, elderly and other vulnerable groups in society amid the pandemic.

Mr Ng said that while efforts are ongoing to support those who need help to go digital, one of the biggest barriers to adopting tech is the mindset.

But that has been changing, he noted.

For example, the NLB used to have to persuade elderly patrons to try to use the e-papers, which allows them to zoom in and see the words more clearly.

But now, seniors are coming forward to ask staff to teach them how to use the interface.

“We’ve been so successful with that change that now we don’t even carry physical newspapers in our libraries,” said Mr Ng.

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Mr Tan said that one of the positives to come out of the pandemic has been the accelerated adoption of technology.

“But I think it’s important to look at digital adoption as an ongoing journey, something that is not a one off… but you need a community to support them so that seniors who adopt the technology see the reason behind it,” he added.

On the topic of encouraging service providers to be more digitally inclusive, Ms Kwee said that moving forward, companies which are looking at making a social impact should work together and share technology and resources, rather than go at it on their own.

Mr Johann said that many companies are still thinking about philanthropy and volunteerism as just a form of corporate social responsibility.

But they should consider more sustainable ways of doing so, such as offering their skills and committing the whole company to the effort.

In response to a question on how the digital economy can include those differently-abled, Mr Tan said that at Touch, it has tried to place people in interim jobs so that they can pick up skills and then transition more smoothly into the digital economy.

Mr Johann added: “We are fully capable of solving the problem for ourselves (in Singapore). I think as a country we can be more globally responsible and do so much more.”

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