Digital Cities Header

Glasgow, a Scottish city champion for digital inclusion and the use of data to reduce inequality

The Cities Coalition for Digital Rights (CC4DR) is pleased to count Glasgow among its members. Counting more than 625,000 inhabitants, Glasgow is the most populated city in Scotland, as well as its economic centre. 

In order to highlight & discover the City’s work related to digital human rights, we met Colin Birchenall, Chief Digital Officer at Glasgow City Council, who explained to us how the different departments of the city are working together to tackle digital inclusion and ensure trust of citizens toward public administration and technologies.

Glasgow joined the Coalition in 2018 after an event where a Eurocities colleague mentioned the CC4DR. When Colin Birchenall realised the strong similarities between the digital Glasgow strategy and the CC4DR declaration, the city joined the network “without any question”. By being part of the Coalition, cities can learn from each other, and also get inspiration from the common work realised. Indeed, the Coalition greatly impacted the vision and approach of the new Digital Glasgow strategy. 

Five years ago, the strategy of Glasgow was based on two parts: digital economy and public services in which there were references to citizens and digital rights. By joining the Coalition, Glasgow recognised the importance of having a broader framework for digital rights: “We’ve been learning of our involvement in CC4DR and we have been very much trying to build from that learning in the development of our new strategy.” 

Planned to be launched in January 2024, the new strategy will now include a third part, called “digital society” acting as a dedicated wallet for digital rights and for a citizen-centred approach. This third element of the strategy is directly linked to the UN-Habitat paper, informed by CC4DR, “Mainstream human rights in the digital transformation of cities”, which was used as a guidebook. More than the digital strategy, the recommendations were also an inspiration to set the values of the city. 


A strategy based on inclusion and trust with citizens

Concretely, the new Digital Glasgow strategy will focus on inclusion and equality, privacy, involvement and empowerment and building trust with citizens. These elements will be at the forefront of the strategy and guide the digital transformation of the city. The city had established a  board with Councillors called the Digital Glasgow Board for the last strategy. The board members have played a key role in developing the city digital values for the new strategy. They are based on the City charter, a global set of values setting up the relationship between the City and its citizens and adapted to the digital environment. It allows the reinforcement of the digital strategy (e.g. digital equality and inclusion, engagement and empowerment) with a political commitment. 

According to Colin Birchenall, having this set of values is necessary to drive the digital economy and digitalisation of public services. Ensuring a good digital transformation means involving people,  doing it for the best of their interests and implementing a transparency policy for the municipality. That is why the emphasis is placed on inclusion and trust. Indeed, maintaining the trust and confidence between public services and the population is mandatory, especially towards data: “If we are using their data, citizens need to know and see that we are doing so in a proportionate manner and that they can trust us”, Colin Birchenall said.  

At the same time, there is a need to develop an inclusive approach in Glasgow. The municipality sees the global industrial revolution driven by digitalisation as an opportunity for the city. But as all previous industrial revolutions, changes are creating new challenges, which need to be based on inclusion, equality and human rights. That is why it is important for the city to have a proactive approach avoiding leaving people behind and not only focusing on opportunities.

This is reflected in the city’s strategic plan that sets out four key challenges for the city : - 
Reduce poverty and inequality in our communities
Increase opportunity and prosperity for all our citizens
Fight the climate emergency in a just transition to a net zero Glasgow
Enable staff to deliver essential services in a sustainable, innovative, and efficient way for our communities.


A city with experience in digital inclusion programmes

The City of Glasgow has suffered a lot from de-industrialisation. That is why, over recent decades, the city has built a diverse economy, known for its digital innovation and its global reputation for international events, making it a vibrant and attractive city in the UK and world-wide. However, social inequality and health inequalities do still persists within the city, where families and communities impacted by the economic crisis are struggling to benefit from the City's new economic values. 

To improve the situation, the municipality, as part of its social inclusion and digital policies, focuses a lot on digital inclusion. For example, the city led a project called “Digi-pals”, allowing people to go to libraries, and ask for support and facilities. Glasgow also contributed to the Scottish government's “Connecting Scotland” programme, helping to distribute devices to people who needed them during the COVID19 pandemic, working with a social enterprise to recycling and distribute digital devices from companies, city departments, and other organisations. These actions were taken to counter the current phenomenon, where digitalisation is exacerbating inequalities by digitally excluding citizens. But, if done in the right way,  digital can also be an enabler for social  inclusion.

One of the main initiative led over the last five years, has been a programme called “Connected Learning”. Developed by the education department of the city, the program uses digital to improve attainment and close the attainment gap. The municipality has provided iPads to every child above 10 years old, meaning that 85,000 of children can now use a tablet to support their learning at school and at home. The main objective of the action is to ensure that all children have equal access to the same level of technology. During the lockdown period, this initiative allows remote learning to be more effective. It also contributed to improve attainment and help to build confidence with digital technologies at an early age, which, according the Colin Birchenall, is one of the keys to eradicating digital exclusion in the long term.

Another main programme of the City is called “Glasgow code learning”. Delivered through libraries, it provides a learning environment for people to learn essential digital skills. If attendees are interested in upgrading their digital skills, they can follow more complex training, going up to coding and professional IT skills. Such initiative allows to combine actions to increase social inclusion and employability of the population. 

Digital inclusion is therefore a massive priority for the city. With the new Strategy, Glasgow will hope to go further and make the best of the digital inclusion ecosystem.

Enabling better inequality through data-driven innovation in the city  

Besides digital inclusion, Glasgow has been developing smart city capabilities. In 2013, the city     won a UK national competition aiming at pushing the city's capacities in terms of data-driven innovation and Internet of Things. The data-driven transformation allows services and interventions to be better tailored and targeted. One example has been how data has provided greater insight into the poverty challenges within the city, and the use of data to enable automatic entitlement benefits such as clothing grants to ensure that people get the benefits that they are entitled to without the need to apply for it.

Data have also been used to research alcohol drug death, to create risk indicators and to explore how to develop predictive models and have a more preventive approach. Colin Birchenall sees smart cities and data-driven innovation as a “huge opportunity to increase people's well-being, improve outcomes for people” but such possibilities will not be explored without transparency and data-use consent from citizens. 

No-One Left Behind : A Scotland-wide strategy

Glasgow is working alongside the Scottish government to implement its digital strategy. Indeed, both governments have similar objectives and priorities in their strategy (ethics, inclusion, protection of citizens’ rights), allowing the development of fruitful synergies. This close relation can be seen in the ethical framework for data, which was developed and implemented in cooperation with the Scottish government. Across Scottish cities, the focus is put on affordable connectivity, inclusive devices and developing essential skills for the (adult) population. 

A key driver for digital inclusion across Scotland has been the Scotland Digital Participation Charter. Developed 15 years ago by the Scottish Government, the charter has a number of commitments for organisations in terms of digital inclusion, sharing resources and working collectively to help civil servants to develop essential digital skills. The values of the charter are very much in line with the vision of Glasgow, which is still committed to it.

Join us today!

Review the checklist of digital rights actions and apply to become a member

Follow us on Twitter and LinkedIn