How to make digitalisation work for all citizens

A close-up on the account information in a mobile bank app.

OsloMet researchers are investigating ways to ensure that everyone can enjoy full social citizenship, while also training the next generation of welfare policy researchers.

Technology needs to work for everyone

So many aspects of our lives have become digital over the past few decades. This has made it easier for many of us to exercise their citizenship rights and duties and participate in society.

But this digital transformation has also created many privacy issues and a heightened risk of social exclusion.

We often imagine that the people at the highest risk of digital exclusion are those with low digital literacy, low-income groups, and persons with disabilities. Researchers aren’t sure yet if this is the case, however.

The Research Centre for Digitalisation of Public Services and Citizenship (CEDIC), one of five newly designated Centres of Research Excellence at OsloMet, seeks to provide new knowledge that will help reduce the risk of digital exclusion.

“What is a value for some can be a problem for others” explains professor Rune Halvorsen, Co-Director of CEDIC.

He and CEDIC director, professor Marit Haldar, are bringing together experts from different disciplines in order to solve the problem of social exclusion in the digital age.

Haldar adds “Technology is politics. It’s global, but it’s also in our daily lives. We need to solve the problem [of digital exclusion] so people can benefit from technological innovations.”

Sharing our private space

Technology can help us participate in society, but it can also invade our privacy. As we shift to working and schooling from home, our personal spaces have started to become public. Both physically and psychologically, this has changed the way we interact with each other.

Portrait of Rune Halvorsen.

Before this shift, there was little chance of an employer or colleague learning personal information that we did not want to share. With many people working from homes that were not built around a home office, this has become a real risk.

Children are particularly vulnerable to this. When people make their work space public, their children’s privacy shouldn’t have to be compromised. The digital shift has forced many people to choose between their work and their privacy.

Norway and the European Union have various laws concerning privacy in the digital space that are under increasing strain as services become digitalised. The sociologists, lawyers, and ethicists on the CEDIC team have a key role to play in untangling this issue and finding a successful way forward.

Drawing on experience

Just as CEDIC brings together researchers from many disciplines, its directors bring experience from different but complimentary backgrounds.

Halvorsen began his career researching IT accessibility for persons with disabilities. This research took him well beyond Norway to look for global policy solutions and to understand how policy traditions affect access.

By contrast, Haldar’s research focused on individuals. She studied how a remote presence robot could reduce social isolation in the lives of elderly people and kids who were home schooled. The strain between the benefits of participation versus the risk to privacy were present in Haldar’s research as well.

Portrait of Marit Haldar.

Both of the researchers saw the potential for technology to be used as a tool for independence against isolation and loneliness. At the same time, they saw how technology ran into social and legal barriers that prevented some vulnerable populations from fully realising those benefits.

A centre of macro and micro scale

Halvorsen and Haldar’s experience nicely mirrors how they view CEDIC. “Our centre brings a macro and micro perspective to address these barriers to use” says Haldar.

Their goal is to understand the role of digitalisation in the provision of welfare services by developing new theories of personal norms and designing broad policy ideas.

Being designated as a centre gives them the time to explore these ideas. Haldar explains “Everything is going so fast these days. CEDIC is an opportunity to slow down and develop new theories, think about consequences ethically, and understand how society is being organised differently. I hope we have time to study the butterfly effect of digitalisation.”

Building for the future

This long-term view means that the Halvorsen and Haldar are not just working on their own research, but spending time cultivating and developing early career researchers.

“We want to create opportunities for the people coming after us, to collect our experiences and pass it on to the next generation of researchers” says Halvorsen.

The OsloMet researchers want to make the research career path easier for new students, many of whom will go on to work within the national welfare system.

They already have plans to disseminate their work through classrooms and have hired a professor from the University of Sussex to give their project international reach.

Over the next five years, they plan to use the institutional and financial support that comes with the Centre designation to continue to develop CEDIC. They intend to apply to be a Norwegian Research Council Centre of Excellence in 2025.


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A research article from:
Faculty of Social Sciences (SAM)
Published: 12/11/2021
Last updated: 31/10/2022
Text: Matthew Davidson
Photo: Jessica Gow / TT