This opinion piece was written by Siobhán McKenna, a senior policy officer on the Communities & Social Policy Unit at the Greater London Authority (City Hall). If you’re interested in writing an opinion piece, take a look at Apolitical’s guide for contributors.
In 2014-15, nearly one in 10 Londoners had never been online — almost a million people missing out on all the digital world has to offer. Digital exclusion was highest among older Londoners, disabled Londoners and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, compounding the social, economic and political exclusion they invariably also experienced.
And of those that were online, nearly 20% lacked basic digital skills — transacting, managing information, communicating, creating content and problem solving.
There is no single reason for people being digitally excluded in the UK, but the main causes tend to include lack of interest in the internet, people believing they lack required skills and cost of equipment and internet access.
The Mayor of London wants this to change. Most recently, he has launched Smarter London Together — his roadmap to make London “the smartest city in the world”. In it, the city’s first ever Chief Digital Officer outlines the Mayor’s commitment “to develop new approaches to digital inclusion to support citizens who need to go online to access public services”.
“How do we convince Londoners they have nothing to fear from the internet?”
But how do we reach Londoners to convince them of the benefits of the internet — and show them they have nothing to fear from it? And how do we ensure residents have the skills they need to access public services, increasingly being moved online whether they’re ready or not?
Tablets and training
The recently concluded Mi Wifi digital inclusion pilot in the south London borough of Lewisham tested the viability — including safety, security and logistics — of lending tablets with mobile internet access to those digitally excluded in the borough. Lewisham is an inner London borough with high ethnic diversity and pockets of severe deprivation and low educational outcomes — pretty typical for the city.
The idea was that temporary loans of tablets would allow digitally-excluded people to become comfortable enough using the technology — and reduce their fear and anxiety enough — that they would consider subsequently purchasing their own devices and bringing their lives online.
Along with lending the tablets — predominately to residents over the age of 55, in receipt of benefits or disabled or housebound — six hours of basic digital skills training was provided to ensure people were successful in not only getting online, but staying online too. Participants learned about online services including banking, shopping, opportunities to reminisce, to communicate and how to keep safe.
“One home-bound participant said having the tablet has boosted her quality of life considerably”
Based on qualitative and quantitative data of the 239 people reached over six months, every single participant said they benefited from the program and would recommend it to friends and family. Almost half said they would consider buying their own devices — the behavioural change the pilot was aiming to influence — but cost remained a barrier.
And while 77% said they found the training they had received useful, almost 30% felt they needed more training. We found that skills levels varied hugely from those who had never turned on a computer to someone who had some basic digital skills but needed more confidence. A standard six hours of basic digital skills training was excessive for some people and insufficient for others.
However, ensuring participants have access to the right skills training is essential to keeping them online once they have access to the hardware and the internet. Unsurprisingly participants who had not attended a training session were less likely to borrow a tablet again or to persist with accessing the internet.
“Skills levels varied hugely — some participants had never turned on a computer”
The pilot also explored whether upskilling particular community groups with digital skills and technology would allow them to serve their communities better in the long term, leading to greater efficiency and value for money. Twenty iPads were loaned to community partners, and feedback confirmed that using tablets with internet access allowed them to run projects and activities that would have otherwise been difficult to deliver.
One group, Phoenix Housing, lent a device to a volunteer energy advisor for four months. During this time, she was able to go off site and provide 100+ people with advice on reducing energy bills, resulting in an estimated £10,000 ($13,000) worth of cumulative savings for some of the neediest residents.
This digital community initiative has generated interest from libraries and community organisations in places as close as Liverpool and Cardiff and as far away as Buenos Aires.
And based on the evaluation data, is appears that broader loaning of tablets can be a good way to reach digitally excluded Londoners. Tablets could be of particular importance to those who are home-bound through illness or disability and cannot access technology and training facilities available at local libraries.
As one home-bound participant said, having the tablet has boosted her quality of life considerably: she is now able to download reading material, use the internet to socialise, listen to music, watch programs and carry out tasks online with ease. — Siobhan McKenna
(Picture credit: Pixabay)