Dorica sums it up: “The digital world has always intrigued me and today we can’t live without it.” Dorica is 73, a retired archaeologist from Italian city of Perugia near Assisi. “I have a computer and for a long time I was looking for a course to learn more about it, but I could never find anything really suitable for me. Also, not having a car, I can’t get around very easily. Fortunately, during the pandemic I was able to attend at least 20 webinars run by the #Gemma project. The first one was fantastic … really useful! I was able to get online – on my own – to pay the tax office the amount due for the person who helps me at home.”
The Digital divide, the situation in Italy
Dorica’s story is common to many women and men across the Bel Paese. According to the national statistics agency (Istat) in 2019, the majority of the over 64s and those whose formal education ended at school leaving age, never use the internet. The categories worst affected by this form of digital exclusion are the elderly, unemployed women, migrants and people with disabilities. Very elderly women with basic educational levels are the least digitized social category of all. In 2019, 94 per cent of them never used a computer and fewer than two per cent used one every day.
Yet during 2020 smartphones and PCs have become indispensable tools for citizenship and identity. New apps let people access government services, health records, manage deadlines and make payments. Knowing how to use them opens the way to a whole new world of opportunities. But how many in Italy are ready for this digital leap?
An OECD report from 2019 shows Italy in third bottom place out of 29 European and non-European countries when it comes to citizens’ digital skills. The country’s technological deficit emerged dramatically during the Covid-19 emergency.
During the pandemic the internet became essential for work and study, for supporting relationships, as well as for accessing information and entertainment. Never before had access to a smartphone, a tablet or a computer been so important in order to communicate, to learn, to make purchases, or even to attend a psychotherapy session.
It is now recognised that digitization must be the engine for Italy’s relaunch because it allows citizens to overcome the technological gap that creates new forms of social inequality and increases the risk of a non-inclusive recovery.
Gemma, the project that bridges the digital divide
“When an institution decides to digitize its services, it must also deal with the issue of training its clients, young people, adults and the elderly to access them. As digital services grow, access rights must also grow “, says Anna Schippa, head of #Gemma, a project for digital inclusion and active citizenship financed by the Umbria Region in central Italy with support from the European Social Fund.
#Gemma’s courses and activities are spread across nine centres in the region and involve people of all ages and backgrounds. It has been active since October 2019.
“Before starting, we carried out a study that identified the group most at risk of digital illiteracy was the 50-70 age group, especially women with a lower level of education who were not working outside the home. So we target this group in particular, but we have also introduced courses for the unemployed, children, adolescents and the so called NEETs – those not in education, employment or training ”, continues Anna Schippa.
“We chose the name Gemma because in Italian it represents a bud ready to generate new branches, leaves and flowers, we liked this image as a symbol of what we are trying to do with our project. We set up digital help desks in small centres such as Montone, Spello, Città di Castello, Giano dell’Umbria, Bastia Umbra and other villages with fewer than 2,000 inhabitants. These digital help desks are welcoming places where people can get free assistance to download their health records, and make reservations and payments online. The local councils, schools and tourist offices help and support us. The real key to the success of the project, though, is the presence of local coaches, local people, who are well-known and respected in the community, and who promote the work and manage the logistical aspects,” says the manager of one of the centres.
From #Gemma to #Emergemma
“Because of the pandemic, face-to-face meetings have turned into remote events via Zoom or livestreams on Facebook and Youtube, and our Whatsapp number is always available to those needing help. So we have turned into a kind of #Emergemma, a tool to fight isolation, making basic digital skills available to the elderly so that they do don’t feel too alone, even if we can only reach out virtually “, Anna Schippa said.
The most popular course? It is called Citzens’ Workshop, it is useful for learning how to activate the specialist email service used in Italy for accessing official sites. The webinar we ran on this recorded the highest number of views on our social channels: right now, we are standing about 11 thousand views with over 1700 participants. Another excellent result came from the Workshop for Over 65s, which taught the basics of social media, how to prevent phishing and online scams: over 800 citizens participated in that one.
The difficulty of approaching and reaching more people
#Gemma’s activities are aimed in particular at the most fragile social groups who, without assistance would struggle to access the digital world and risk serious marginalization. “We know we can do more for more people, but some small Umbrian villages are difficult to persuade to get involved, there is a real difficulty in engaging them with our work.
“Before the pandemic, in the small villages of 1500-2000 inhabitants we worked with flyers, posters, but then lockdown prevented that. In such places the older and more geographically remote groups feel comfortable with a physical presence. That’s what they have always known as the way to build up trust and get things done. They feel at home in local meeting places where they play cards and where they have socialized all their lives. It is in these remote areas that we have the greatest difficulties, but we are working with animators and respected members of these communities to intrigue them, giving them time to trust us and explain this great opportunity to them,” says Anna Schippa.
From the medicine reminder to the video lunch
The tone and language employed by the #Gemma project in their outreach is simple and straightforward. The course organized in 2020 “Having lunch together in time of COVID 19” explains how to make a group video call and share Easter lunch with distant friends and relatives. “Forget me not… apps and reminders for medicines, medications and deadlines” shows how to set up your smartphone to remind you to take your pills!
“We wanted to allow everyone to take advantage of digital technology, even those who didn’t know anything about it, and to prevent the emergence of first class and second class citizens during this time of isolation.
“At the start of the pandemic here in Italy people used to meet up for an aperitivo on zoom and that helped families stay in touch. By using simple and clear language we wanted to give this opportunity to the 70-year-olds in small towns with few inhabitants too. They seem obvious things, but for many citizens they are not at all obvious,” points out the director of #Gemma.
Who are the digital volunteers
Gemma was selected by the Rome-based national newspaper, La Repubblica’s Digitale supplement as one of Italy’s best national projects working to bridge the digital divide.. It has grown and become so much appreciated, even in the neighboring regions beyond Umbria, that it has decided to start new training courses for Digital Volunteers – a network of facilitators to act as digital ambassadors in small communities and help their fellow citizens to use new technology. The result? A boom in numbers signing up.
“I help out as a volunteer with the Civil Protection agency in Corciano and I take care of the social media pages for them”, says Francesca, 53. “I was told there was an opportunity to become a Digital Volunteer for #Gemma and I applied immediately. I discovered a new way to volunteer. Being able to help people with little or no technological savvy … teaching them how to use the official email services, use social media, access public administration services is all very rewarding. I’m not an expert, but I gladly offer my services to help the most fragile people in my area.”
Emancipation at age 60, the story of Gabriella
“I discovered #Gemma from the local newspaper”, says Gabriella, 60, from Bastia Umbra. “I started attending in-person courses in my village. Nowadays you just have to know these things: they give us independence, whether it be to book airplanes, or access medical test results, the internet is used for everything …
“I tried it alone but I didn’t understand, I needed someone who could calmly explain things to me. Online courses are convenient because I can take them from home now. The only thing I would change is the duration: a four-hour course is a lot! I find it hard to stay focused until the end. In my opinion it needs to be broken down unto shorter segments because many of us work, have family commitments or are grandparents and have childcare responsibilities. But the advantages are many.
“For years I have spent hours in doctors’ waiting rooms for a simple prescription, now I have learned what to do and I can download it myself. With the virtual prescription I can order everything on my phone. Technology is great!”
Translation by Ronnie Convery