Various local authorities have been busy doing lots of work to support digitally excluded residents.
COVID-19 has highlighted how essential technology is for:
• delivering and accessing council services
• residents and businesses to stay connected
• keeping well
• accessing help
• being engaged with society
Here’s an overview of the work that’s been taking place.
Ring the over 50s helpline
There’s a helpline for Hackney residents who are over 50 and need help with using their devices, or getting online. It’s available on Tuesdays from 10 am to 3 pm by ringing 020 3383 0111.
Request a one-to-one digital buddy
Residents that need help getting online and using their phone, tablet or laptop, can ask for one-to-one support from a digital buddy. To request a digital buddy, they submit an online form outlining what help they need. Then they are paired with a student volunteer (16 to 18 years old), or a council IT support apprentice to help them. Every buddy goes through a training programme and has a clear understanding of their responsibilities.
Currently, this service is being provided over the phone. Digital buddies can help with a variety of things, for example:
• basic controls on a phone or tablet
• using a printer
• connecting to WiFi
• managing data
Similar one-to-one buddy support can also be requested from the ITCanHelp service.
Information about this service has been made available in GP surgeries, pharmacies and community spaces
A series of ‘how-to’ videos are available to help residents learn key digital skills. Each video also has a transcript so that residents can read along with the video or print it out. The videos run slowly and can be paused. They can be slowed down further by opening the video in YouTube, tapping on the ‘Settings’ icon and selecting ‘Playback speed’.
Videos topics include how to:
• use email
• search the internet
• understand a device home screen and apps
• message and call with WhatsApp
• set up a Zoom meeting
• join a meeting or event with Google Meet
• do supermarket shopping online and more
Other digital skills training
For residents that are ready to try more structured courses, Hackneys runs online tutorials via Zoom. These tutorials cover different subjects to help residents learn a variety of digital skills.
Groundwork London runs a six-week course for people aged 50+ called Silver Connections – Making the Most of your Mobile.
Make it click runs online courses that focus on helping people develop digital skills for the workplace.
Learn my way covers the basics for those looking for a job, or needing help to manage money online.
Brent has undertaken two digital inclusion initiatives:
1. for access to devices, training and connectivity
2. a longer-term research project with a social enterprise called Citizens Online – to map digital exclusion in Brent
This initiative started just a month before the first lockdown. It involved:
• engaging citizens online to understand the needs in Brent
• looking at the data gathered to help with deciding where there’s a need for digital skills
The research found out that the most digitally excluded residents were:
• older people
• the disabled
• people whose first language is not English
The research data was mapped geographically. This was split into various categories, for example, wards in the borough and people who had access to superfast broadband.
Some assumptions were made about the particular groups of people most likely to be digitally excluded. For example that they are:
• people over 65
• people over 65 and living alone
• disabled adults
• people without qualifications
• benefit claimants i.e. housing and universal credit
Based on the data gathered a league table was created. This showed the level of social exclusion for each of the wards in the borough. The results highlighted which wards and which groups to prioritise.
Residents’ support fund
Last autumn the residents’ support fund was launched. It’s an initiative to provide financial support for people impacted by COVID-19, with digital inclusion support too. Applicants cannot have more than £6,000 in savings. This initiative is funded by the COVID-19 support grant from central government. Work was done with the Credit Union as well, to help residents in debt apply for funds.
Residents can also apply to get a Chromebook or laptop. They can choose to apply for a device or to clear their debts. If they are eligible for a device but do not have connectivity, they could be given a fibre connection or O2 MiFi. This forms part of the Brent digital strategy.
Part of the digital inclusion initiative includes a training scheme. This is provided by the Brent Adult Education Service, who already have a comprehensive digital curriculum. They also pick up training referrals. Tutors are lined up for extra schemes as and when needed, funded through the residents’ support fund.
Since the residents’ support fund opened, so far around:
• 500 people have asked for devices
• 300 people have asked for connectivity
• 250 people have asked for digital skills
Applications are still being assessed at the moment.
The plan is to compare the take-up data, with the data gathered from the research. Then to see if the profile of people, matches the borough wards and demography that was expected. Also, to see if they have got the right people to come forward, the postcodes of people given support will be looked at. This will be checked against the Citizens Online data.
There is evidence to suggest, that currently, they are not getting as many older people as they would like. So they are planning to do a bespoke pilot offer for older people.
The next step is to see how the profile of people given support, matches with the type of people expected from the research. This will help to determine what extra support to provide.
Lambeth has launched a new £200,000 digital inclusion fund to combat digital poverty. The fund will help the voluntary and community sector (VCS) and schools, to get those who most need it connected online.
Including the excluded
Thousands of Lambeth residents are digitally excluded in some way. This affects:
• children and young people
• older people
• disabled people
• vulnerable adults
People who are digitally excluded often have:
• no computer, tablet or smartphone to get online, or only have a shared one
• no reliable internet connection, not enough data allowance, or poor Wi-Fi where they live
• a lack of access, IT skills, confidence or motivation
Access to services
Lambeth is striving to support digitally excluded residents, so they can have access to public services and participate equally in society.
Their digital Inclusion fund is part of Lambeth’s forthcoming digital strategy and new delivery programme. It aims to go beyond ‘getting online’ and improve the root causes of digital poverty.
In the long term, better digital inclusion will help to reduce some of the challenges and service needs.
How the funding will be used
The digital inclusion fund will be used in phases.
VCS organisations are currently getting £75,000 in small grants (£1,000 to £5,000 each). This will help them focus on projects to deliver devices (e.g. laptops, tablets) and connectivity (e.g. dongles and MiFi) directly to adults who need it.
Schools will soon be able to apply for small grants to support children and young people with digital equipment.
Community Calling and Lambeth Tech Aid will clear and recycle used laptops, tablets, smartphones and pass them on to people in need.
Research and insights work will take place, to help direct the focus of future funding.
Lambeth Digital Inclusion Network
We know that various Lambeth residents lack digital equipment, connectivity, skills or confidence. This can lead to them being excluded from social, educational and economic opportunities:
The Lambeth Digital Inclusion Network is aiming to ensure that no Lambeth residents are digitally excluded from any opportunities. It brings Lambeth Council together with more than 20 charities, housing providers and community-led initiatives. Organisations can become part of this network, which provides a place to share learning and connect across initiatives.
A joint effort
This fund is part of a much bigger picture. Digital exclusion is a large and complicated challenge. Huge efforts are being made to tackle it by so many people. For example:
• multiple council services
• voluntary and community sector organisations
• housing providers
• education providers
Residents can help to combat digital poverty too. They can help by donating mobile phones, tablets and laptops, to be securely erased and redistributed via:
• Lambeth TechAid
• Community Calling (smartphones)
End the digital divide for Camden pupils
Unfortunately, the pandemic has made pre-existing inequalities even worse. It has also generated new areas of need.
School closures have had an extremely negative impact on children and young people in Camden. In particular, the digital divide has become a much larger problem. Last term, more than 3,000 Camden pupils were without access to a computer unless they were bought the digital kit to learn at home. If there are COVID-19 cases in schools pupils are sent home. If there is a lockdown pupils cannot go to school. Many children cannot get the education they desperately need, because they have no access to online learning. Schools are relying on online learning so much more because of the pandemic. Sadly, this is likely to make the educational achievement gap worse for disadvantaged young people.
Camden’s ambition for young people
Camden’s ambition is to be a place where everyone has a chance to succeed, and nobody gets left behind.
Also, for every young person to have access to the digital kit and connectivity they need to learn.
For this to be the case, they will need to tackle the digital divide. The internal review of Camden’s pandemic response highlighted the need for a more radical change in this area.
In April, they launched a communications campaign about digital exclusion and donating digital kit for schools. Seventy-eight device donations were made (45 were useable).
As part of a Department for Education scheme, 1,085 devices and 240 routers were distributed to:
• young people with social workers
• looked after children
• disadvantaged year 10 pupils
Crowdfunding and Camden
In September 2020, Camden Learning, supported by the council, launched a crowdfunding campaign page. This was new territory for both organisations. It was free to set up, with no platform or card charges, and done on a keep-what-you-raise basis. They asked for donations from businesses and the general public. A high-quality video was produced, with Camden pupils, teachers and youth representatives explaining what was needed. The clear messages were, every £227 raised, buys a computer for a Camden pupil who needs it. Also, that everything raised matters. More than £30,000, was raised in the first two weeks.
Why it was successful
Early financial support and comments from Councillors, senior officers, staff and Camden Learning helped to build momentum. Local charities provided advice, and personal support was given to high-value donors to get large donations across the line.
Also, the crowdfunding page was engaging and clearly expressed the aim of the campaign. This made it quick and easy for people to donate and make a difference. The supporting video that put Camden’s young people and their teachers centre stage, contributed to the success too.
The Good Things Foundation worked with Salford Council for 2 years (November 2018 to November 2020). Together they helped almost 8,000 of Salford’s most excluded residents, to transform their lives using digital. This represented almost a third of the people across the city who don’t have all five basic digital skills.
At the time, 24% of adults in Salford lacked basic digital skills. These people were at risk from social exclusion as well as digital exclusion. The programme helped them to improve their lives and now they can:
• use council digital services
• take control of their health and wellbeing online
• search for jobs online
• benefit from the financial savings available online
The project was built on three principles:
Recognising, that when the most vulnerable experience digital exclusion, it indicates and contributes to many forms of social exclusion. This makes digital inclusion a powerful way to bring about social change.
2. Harnessing community assets
Digital inclusion works best through people, communities and trust. The project created a local movement that inspired and empowered organisations to get involved.
Having a digital social mission can help community organisations increase efficiency, together with positive outcomes for those they help. But this needs initial investment and support.
Focusing on those with the greatest needs, a digital inclusion network of community organisations was built for Salford. As a result, the capacity to help the vulnerable and excluded was created. This then helped residents to improve their lives through digital.
Salford digital champion volunteers were recruited from, communities, the education system and private sector employers. A Salford digital ambassador was put in place to work with and inspire the community network. The project was ‘hands-on’, focusing on what it takes to make digital inclusion happen everywhere. It was part of a cross-city initiative driven by a vision of Salford as a truly digital city. Links were made with health, education and other sectors. This helped to ensure that digital inclusion was visible everywhere and kept community partners connected.
The scope of the project was critical. As well as being an issue of social justice, digital inclusion provides a range of important economic and social benefits. This covers health, employment, education, housing and other services. These social benefits can be experienced more powerfully by:
• investing in digital inclusion and helping it to happen everywhere
• incorporating digital inclusion with other policies and programmes
It’s this combination of strategic thinking and decisive action, that makes Salforld’s project stand out. Fantastic commitment has been shown from a forward-thinking council. They look forward to sharing their experiences with local public sector leaders across Greater Manchester and beyond as the project moves ahead.