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INTERVIEW with ... Tania Maamary, Brussels' digital inclusion coordinator

03 September 2019

Let's put Brussels' first digital inclusion coordinator in the spotlight!

You are the first digital inclusion coordinator in the Brussels-Capital Region. What is your role? 

In December 2018, the Brussels-Capital Government approved a digital inclusion action plan. This plan includes four main focuses: the development of actions at the Brussels-Capital Region level, recommendation at the level of the municipalities, the structuring of DPS, namely Digital Public Spaces, and communications about all these measures. As a Digital Inclusion Coordinator, my job is to put in place measures relating to these four main focuses.
My main tasks are:
  •     Development of a “DPS of the Brussels-Capital Region” label
  •     Making a study of the profile of visitors to DPS in order to identify their needs and make recommendations
  •     Proposing a service/an action in favour of the municipalities to be developed with the CIRB
  •     Preparing a communications plan about digital inclusion aimed at the “general public” and the “target audience”
  •     Providing support to the current DPS network, among other things the CABAN network, the Collective of Brussels Actors for Digital Accessibility
  •     Creating and leading a “Digital Inclusion” commission reporting to the Easybrussels steering committee.
  •     Developing contacts between the various actors of the digital inclusion sector

What is the digital divide?

The digital divide is difficult to define but in order to understand the different aspects of it, I will refer to a study conducted by researchers at the UCL regarding an analysis of the digital divide in the Brussels-Capital Region. “Generally, the notion of “digital inequality” is used to describe the disparities relating to the type and quality of access, and the disparities relating to the form of engagement and ways of using technologies” (Brotcorne, Mertens & Valenduc, 2009). There is a dual challenge associated with the digital divide. Firstly, there are inequalities in terms of access (access to a computer and access to an internet connection), including access to high-quality connection (broadband). Secondly, there are inequalities in terms of engagement and uses.

These inequalities are related to the interest or usefulness perceived by the user. Finally, disparities also exist in relation to digital skills and know-how.

There are several factors of digital exclusion: socio-demographic and socio-economic characteristics (such as gender, age, ethnic origin, family composition, disability and geographical location, income, educational attainment, etc.) but also the social context and the socio-cultural environment.

Do statistics exist on the situation regarding the digital divide in Brussels?

More and more studies are being conducted to quantify the situation regarding the digital divide in the Brussels-Capital Region.
The above-mentioned study, conducted by the UCL, has helped to map digital inclusion, municipality by municipality, and to indicate an overall score which is an indicator of digital vulnerability. 
According to the King Baudouin Foundation “4 citizens out of 10 are at risk of digital exclusion” in Belgium.

Finally, in 2019 the IBSA has also published statistics about “Brussels citizens in the digital age: access to ICTs and their use”.  This study shows that 84% of Brussels households have access to broadband Internet. 87% of Brussels residents regularly use the Internet to participate in social media (81%), use online banking services (69%) or make online purchases (63%). 64% of people regularly using the Internet do so to interact with the public authorities, which represents 2 out of 3 Internet users.

However, the study points out that “not all Brussels residents are equal in dealing with the digital transformation. The digital divide still affects a not insignificant part of the population of Brussels. Individuals on the lowest incomes and with a low level of educational attainment, older people, job seekers and the inactive are proportionally more likely to have never used the Internet.”

What organisations are working for digital inclusion in Brussels?  

There are many players working for inclusion in Brussels.

First of all, there are the Digital Public Spaces (DPS), these places enable the public to have access to a computer and an Internet connection, in which multimedia support officers provide help, if need be, with their use, and where training is given to offer the public tools and digital knowledge. There are many of these DPS. There are municipal, regional and associative DPS, but all of them are working towards the same goal, i.e. reducing the digital divide in the Brussels-Capital Region.

A network has also been formed around these DPS: the Collective of Actors of Digital Accessibility (CABAN). Their website lists all the DPS of the Region.
The voluntary sector also has many associations working actively for digital inclusion:
  • Solival works for accessibility to ICTs for people with a disability and the elderly.
  • Blindenzorg Licht en Liefde offers a range of expertise on compensatory tools and techniques for blind and visually impaired persons.
  • Digital Seniors promotes the autonomy of elderly people by responding to the challenges that this population group has in using IT.
  • etc.
Finally, more generally, we can also consider that all the Brussels coding schools are working in favour of digital inclusion: Ecole 19/BeCode, CodeNPlay, HackYourFuture, Interface3, and many others.

Can you give us inspiring examples of policies / projects of digital inclusion, in Belgium or abroad?

An inspiring example of a project of digital inclusion is the establishment of public writers (or public IT experts) specialised in online administrative procedures. Offering assistance in filling in a person’s tax return or in navigating someone’s e-health portal is a skill which all the multimedia support officers of the DPSs have. But this has consequences: this implies that the multimedia support officer has access to confidential, financial and private information. The establishment of public writers would allow more regulated and stricter oversight of this access as well as certainty for the end user that their data are protected. In this regard, mention should be made of the “Public IT specialist” project of the ARC association (Action and Cultural Research).

Another inspiring initiative is the Mobile Digital Public Space. In order to mitigate the problems of mobility for an entire segment of the digitally-excluded population (older people, persons with reduced mobility, etc.), DPSs would no longer only be static physical places but could move around to make them even more accessible. The DPS, “Culture and Development Space” has developed a mobile DPS to respond to this need.

You work for the CIRB, too. How is the digital inclusion aspect integrated in your own organisation / your projects?

The Informatics Centre for the Brussels Region (CIRB) is a non-profit organisation and the IT partner of any public institution which wants to introduce innovative and coherent ICTs (information and communication technologies) in order to maximise, on the one hand, the efficiency of its operation and, on the other hand, the user-friendliness of the services to Brussels residents, businesses and visitors.

As part of this mission, the CIRB is responsible for the missions of IT, telematics and cartographic development and assistance.
When the CIRB develops a new digital service for the citizen, it endeavours to make this tool user-friendly and accessible to all (among other things thanks to the Anysurfer label).
Many projects are thus developed in this way: whether this is the Fix My Street platform which is used to report incidents in the public space (wobbly paving stone, pothole in the road, fly tipping, etc.), or the free public wifi, or IRISbox, the online administrative one-stop shop. All these smart applications which facilitate the life of the citizen must be accessible to all and easy to use.

As the coordinator, I have also set up specific training for the multimedia support officers to familiarise them with a whole series of digital public services. These support officers will therefore more easily be able to help citizens and visitors to DPSs to use these services.

Personally, what aspects of digital inclusion move you the most? 

All aspects of inclusion are important to me but the inclusive aspect for persons with a disability, more precisely the visually impaired moves me more particularly. When we talk about access to digital, it is even more problematic for the visually impaired. Indeed, suitable equipment is particularly expensive and the DPSs are not, or only rarely, equipped to cater for these people.

When we talk about the computerisation of services or the smart city, the aim is to make citizens’ lives easier. However, this objective is rarely achieved for the visually impaired.
These people, in addition to digital exclusion, also risk social exclusion.
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