Wester'ly: Digital Inclusion for Western Sydney
Australia is one of the wealthiest and most privileged countries in the world and yet access to technology is far from universal. Research has shown that Australians are heavily reliant on mobile technology while also revealing a strong digital divide among communities. More than 33,000 students in NSW were without home internet access at the last census. This included fifteen per cent of public-school students in the state's far west, and just one per cent in Sydney's northern suburbs and Sutherland Shire.
Public school students were also more likely to experience factors such as insecure housing or crowded homes that make remote learning difficult, according to an independent research by Barbara Preston. Fifteen percent of NSW public school students live in ‘unsuitable housing’, which meant homes with an insufficient number of bedrooms, compared to eight percent of private school and nine per cent of Catholic school students. ‘Even if students do have access to the internet, overcrowded housing or a large number of people in the house can be very distracting,’ Preston said.
South West Sydney had the highest number of public-school students affected with 2689 unable to access internet by any means including through smartphones. This was followed by Inner South West Sydney (2089 students), the New England and North West region (1987), and Blacktown (1959).
This divide became even more apparent during the public health crisis of COVID-19. On March 16, it became clear everyone would be sent home from school. To alleviate this issue, the NSW Department of Education provided more than 8440 internet dongles to students to study from home. Labor MP Courtney Houssos, a member of the upper house education committee, said that number was a ‘disgrace’ compared to the Victorian government, which provided 21,000 dongles.
Under lockdown, organisations working with the community began to see the impacts of digital exclusion on a broader scale more than ever before. They all began to receive numerous requests for access to digital devices and reliable internet. Each organisation was responding to their individual contexts. Some helped on a case by case basis like finding a family an old laptop while others helped by providing creative programs or take-home kits.
As a contractor at the Western Sydney based community arts organisation CuriousWorks, I was brought in to design an arts pack for young people at Miller Technology High School to take home and create fun stuff in their free time. As a concerned group of community and cultural organisations and advocators, we came together to share our collective dismay—realising that this space of digital inclusion was a vast chasm for so many people we served.
We started to think about:
- What help is available?
- What is local, tested, reliable?
- What advocacy is already happening?
- How can we bring what we are discovering as a sector together to share— so that individual community workers and families could decipher what free or low cost options are there for supporting learning at home?
The Wester’ly Coalition was born out of this necessity. It is our means as a collective to offer help as well as advocate for digital inclusion.
My role in the Coalition was to design and develop a simple website that speaks to our target audience—young people from disadvantaged and newly arrived families.
Initial primary and secondary research indicated that across Mt Druitt, Fairfield and Liverpool, only 60-70% of households had access to reliable internet at home. Willmot and Bidwill fared even less, at 62.8% and 59.9% respectively. A series of interviews with community members and stakeholders were conducted to gain more insights on the situation. We learned that:
- For many families, mobile phones are the only devices they have—that’s an expensive way to access the internet, and hardly the most appropriate device for completing schoolwork.
- People have to settle with expensive pay-as-you-go data packages because they are worried about signing up for a long-term plan when their income may not be stable
- A lot of parents and carers do not know how to use the internet or email nor speak English well enough to help their kids with schoolwork.
- Most kids act as translators for their parents.
We set out to design a mobile-friendly website that would answer all their crucial questions about access. The website had to be simple yet address the complex and often confusing web of modern technology. A Help Page had to contain all essential information about digital access. It needed to be inviting, inclusive and kid friendly. It also needed to be mobile and data-friendly as most could not afford a high-bandwidth mobile plan.
I designed the website to have the look and feel of a pamphlet or postcard. During these dark and uncertain times, we felt that the imagery should be positive and uplifting. It had a DIY quality to it, as if it was drawn by a child with a pack of crayons, as we wanted the design to appeal to school-aged children as a lot of them acted as their parents’ translators, according to research. Every web asset was compressed and saved as SVGs for scalability and to keep the file size small, allowing those with old phones and slow internet to access the website easily.
After completing the Help Page, the Coalition generated a lot of behind the scene interest. Many other organisations contacted and either requested to join the Coalition or contribute their services to the cause. Hence, we decided to make this a full-blown advocacy campaign. Another page was then built, we called it the Advocacy Page, it contained all the background information, research as well as five key asks for potential partners who were interested in joining the Coalition.
The entirety of the website was then translated into five of the most spoken languages based on area (other than English), including Arabic, Vietnamese, Serbian, Traditional Chinese and Kh’mer.
Due to budget constraints, we decided to promote the campaign at the most grassroot level through emails, phone calls and fortnightly Zoom sessions with potential partners. We also decided to design and print out bookmarks that contain information about the campaign and website—these were to be given to children at schools, to libraries and community centres.
Social media squares and banners were created to be distributed by each participating organisation’s communications team. An asset folder has been made available for the public to help spread the word.
More organisations have joined hands after the launch. The Coalition is having conversations with Western Sydney University about a potential partnership. As a designer, I couldn’t be more stoked.