Digital inclusion in times of crisis — UK mobile operators give free access to NHS websites

Anne Dhir
Anne Dhir
Mar 18, 2020 · 4 min read

As service designers, our job is to design services — for the people who use them, and the staff and organisations who deliver them. We research user needs. We analyse impact. We look for solutions to improve experiences for everyone.

But we need to go further. It has to be our duty to tackle the barriers that keep users from accessing services, even when tackling those barriers are outside of our remit. If that means pushing an idea to the heart of government, to stakeholders and to corporates, then that’s what we need to do!

We are absolutely thrilled to hear that one of those ideas has come to fruition- Government Zero; a simple but effective idea to give free access to essential services.

The UK Government has announced that Vodafone, EE, BT, O2 and Three are giving all their mobile customers across the UK free access to so that they can get the latest health information without worrying about data costs.

The digital transformation of services has delivered value to the majority of users, but places services behind what feels like a paywall to those who don’t have easy access to the Internet. Digital exclusion goes hand in hand with social, economic and political exclusion. It is also complex: people need the appropriate device, connection, skills, confidence, and motivation as well as the ability to maintain those through changing circumstances.

Addressing these complex needs will take time, so we need to look for intermediate solutions. Time and time again, whilst doing research, we met people who had a mobile phone but couldn’t afford a monthly contract and frequently ran out of data on their pay-as-you-go. Their stories stay with us. A woman in Scotland with a mental map of all the wifi hotspots she could access on the way to work. A man in West Sussex who missed the deadline for submitting his application for universal credit because he ran out of data and ended up homeless. Some children who were among the estimated 1 million who are routinely set homework that requires access to the internet, which they don’t have at home. These are just a few of the people who make up a huge sector of society and struggle to access digital services.

‘Zero-rating’ means users can access essential services even if they don’t have data on their phones — just like they can call 999 or 111. We knew it was feasible because mobile operators let customers access their website to top up their account. It had also been done before with projects such as Wikipedia Zero and Facebook Zero, or for Childline.

We need to tread carefully and comply with the net neutrality principle. This requires internet service providers (ISPs) to treat all communications equally so that users can freely choose from a wide range of information sources. For this reason, ISPs must self-report zero-rated pages to OFCOM. The concept of Government Zero focuses on services with a single source: there is only one place to apply for a passport or for a given benefit, so net neutrality doesn’t apply.

It’s a ‘big picture’ idea that was propelled to the forefront in the past week by the current coronavirus situation. UK residents have an urgent need to access reliable information in order to reduce misinformation and potentially lighten the load on health services. Government Zero will mean that anyone with access to a device can obtain reliable, accurate information from the NHS about the coronavirus situation whatever their circumstances.

Over a number of projects, Nominet and Snook have built a strong relationship. Together, we reached out to partners across industry, government, the health and charitable sectors.

A whirlwind week saw a growing network of stakeholders, mobile operators, government departments and health services working together to share their knowledge, reach out to their contacts, and explore the technical feasibility — all leading to today’s announcement. This is the product of a 10-day relay between people with a single-minded commitment to making sure that the national response serves everyone in society.

Prototypes come in all shapes and forms, and a national rollout is certainly an unusual way to test a new concept! It will enable mobile operators and service providers to evaluate the traffic, cost, impact and implementation of this initiative — paving the way for a more permanent solution to open access to all government digital services, in particular those serving the most vulnerable.

Now the work needs to continue to systematically tackle the wider issue of holistic digital inclusion.

Until then, keep washing your hands!

Jimmy Wales tweets wonderful about the announcement

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Since 2009 we’ve been helping organisations put effective change in place — designing products and services that make the world more human.

Anne Dhir

Written by

Anne Dhir

Anne is a Strategist and Service Designer at SPARCK, bringing 20 years of experience delivering sustainable, inclusive and innovative services


Since 2009 we’ve been helping organisations put effective change in place — designing products and services that make the world more human.