The Manchester Tech Festival’s role in forging digital inclusion

three people working on laptops smiling, digital skills

By Naomi Timperley, Head of Growth and Innovation, Manchester Tech Festival

The prospect of improved digital inclusion is something that drives me to get out of bed in the morning.

With our lives becoming increasingly ruled by devices that are connected to the web, access to these devices and the network that connects them is fast becoming as necessary a part of life as food, water and shelter.

Despite the UK’s tech ecosystem now being the third-largest in the world behind the US and China, a digital divide is still very firmly in place in some parts of the country. In October 2022, the first ever Manchester Tech Festival will be taking place in the city that’s well-known as a vibrant hub for startups and scaleups of all shapes and sizes. I’m proud to be part of the team delivering the festival.

But the city still suffers from socioeconomic gaps which mean that opportunities to work and thrive in digital aren’t open to everyone. And if we don’t have diverse teams, that won’t just affect the bottom line; It will also affect the hardware and software that we’re developing.

I recently attended the Tech London Advocates Tech for D&Iversity 22 event. While the various talks addressed the startling lack of women and different ethnicities in senior positions in London tech firms, as co-founder of Tech North Advocates I spoke about the difference in socioeconomic divide in the tech sector as Greater Manchester and the North has some of the most deprived areas in the country.

The UK is undeniably a diverse country and the event’s report looked at whether the sector had followed this trend for diversity and inclusion or not over the last five years. It concluded that with the pandemic and the process of Britain leaving the European Union, diversity and inclusion had slipped down the list of businesses’ priorities.

Yet the perception of diversity and inclusion remained. When asked if they thought UK tech had become more inclusive and diverse in the last half-decade, almost 60% of the respondents said they thought it had.

Inclusion in tech covers many different aspects and groups of stakeholders. As well as the socioeconomic gap that we want to bridge, consider the inclusion of groups like the neurodiverse; an Office of National Statistics (ONS) survey last year showed that only 22% of autistic adults were employed.

With our focus on socioeconomic factors, one of our festival’s missions is to support and help close Manchester’s digital divide caused by deprivation in parts of the city and encourage other cities and hubs to do the same.

It’s my belief that barriers to entry into the world of tech come right from school. In 2019/20, I worked on a project hosted by the Greater Manchester Combined Authority (GMCA) with Digital Advantage called GoDigital.

As part of the Greater Manchester Digital Blueprint, the GMCA set out their vision to develop a future talent pipeline in Greater Manchester. The GoDigital programme was set up to help deliver this ambition, by giving 11-to-13-year-olds the chance to create digital products, experience the buzz of working in the digital sector and try their hand at a digital job.

To create GoDigital, three Greater Manchester digital skills organisations came together: HiveDigital Advantage and InnovateHer.

All three organisations are working towards the same goal of demystifying the digital and technology industry for young people, helping them develop the skills and confidence to pursue a career in the industry.

The 50 schools selected to participate in GoDigital were chosen because their students had not previously had the opportunity to take part in an activity like this before. More than 90% of them were in areas where there is not currently significant employment in digital.

The lack of such knowledge and the digital divide across the wider reach of Greater Manchester is preventing the area’s children from pursuing employment in the tech sector. With the festival, we want to reach across this divide and make a career in the field available to everyone.

The founder of the festival, Amy Newton, runs a diversity and inclusion consultancy called Inclusively Tech and offers workshops and courses to companies of all sizes, focusing on how to get the most out of the area’s tech community while reaching out and engaging with under-represented tech talent in the right way.

Working together, our festival will unite thousands of tech delegates, from software engineers, start-ups and scale-ups, investors, product owners, practitioners and more, to help people and organisations learn, create, thrive, and involve to ultimately shape Greater Manchester’s tech scene.

Manchester Tech Festival event imageManchester Tech Festival event image

Manchester Tech Festival is a week long festival in October 2022 which will highlight the diverse talent, showcase the innovative businesses and bring together the eco system and the community.

woman coding on laptop, Code First Girls

Accessible digital experiences improve digital inclusion 

Article by Inge De Bleecker, Vice President of CX at Applause

woman coding on laptop, Code First GirlsMost people are probably unaware of the need for digital inclusion or the great work that is being done in this area to ensure digital accessibility for all.

Businesses and public sector organisations should keep all users in mind when designing digital experiences like mobile apps and websites. And while much of the attention on digital accessibility is often paid to lawsuits and the costs of non-compliance with laws like the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), businesses should remember that the point of digital accessibility – much like physical accessibility measures like wheelchair ramps, designated parking and Braille touchpads – is to provide a usable and enjoyable experience to every person, regardless of ability.

The importance of digital accessibility cannot be understated, as fifteen percent of the world’s population (1.3 billion people) live with some form of disability, and the annual disposable income of the global population of persons with disabilities is approximately $1.2 trillion. (There also needs to be consideration for those that have a temporary disability like a broken arm or even those who have lost their glasses). The entire world has seen their reliance on digital assets grow as the COVID-19 pandemic forced consumers to change their shopping habits and move to more online preferences, and the same can be said for those with disabilities.

Luckily, it seems that businesses have recognized the impact of the pandemic on persons with disabilities and have looked to make digital accessibility more of a priority as a result. That’s according to a market research survey that my company, Applause, ran in early May 2021.

The global survey of more than 1,800 engineering, QA, product, DevOps, marketing, CX/UX and legal professionals found that over 68% of respondents said their company is prioritizing digital accessibility now more than ever because of the COVID-19 pandemic. That percentage becomes even larger when looking at larger companies (with 1,000+ employees), with 73.5% saying digital accessibility is now a bigger priority for them.

This increased awareness of digital accessibility throughout an organization is encouraging; however, according to the survey respondents, there is still a lot of progress left to be made. In fact, over half (57.4%) of the engineers who responded to the survey said that they only sometimes, rarely or never write code with accessibility in mind. Not only can that impact the overall accessibility and usability of a website or mobile app, but it can cost businesses in the long run as fixing accessibility issues after the fact is much more time-consuming and expensive than building the code the right way at the outset.

While engineers admittedly still have work to do, there is good news on the product front – more than three-quarters of product managers say they are working accessibility into their design plans at the earliest stages of development, which is a critical step in building inclusive experiences. Similarly UX researchers are increasingly including people with disabilities in usability testing and gathering user feedback that is in turn used to improve the experience, often for everyone’s benefit.

Clearly, there is still a long way to go, but it is encouraging to see more businesses are paying attention to the needs of all their users and are actively looking to improve digital accessibility. Ultimately, accessibility is for everyone and it should not be framed solely as a means of avoiding litigation. As Forrester’s Gina Bhawalkar wrote in her May 2021 research, Q&A: Getting Started with Digital Accessibility, “accessibility really takes hold in an organization when it is framed as an opportunity, not a legal obligation.”

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