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Widening the net

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Digital exclusion is about far more than not having the convenience of internet access. As more of our daily activities are conducted online, those without the internet can find it harder to access local services, look for jobs or even get the best deal from utilities and shops.

Because digital exclusion most often affects people who are already socially or economically disadvantaged, the government has described it as “an increasingly urgent social problem”. However, it is an issue that is increasingly being addressed by councils, as can be seen from the latest round of those awarded Beacon status for their digital inclusion work by the Improvement & Development Agency.

Sunderland City Council’s digital inclusion work is centred on empowering its communities.

“What we have in Sunderland is working very much with communities, letting communities take a lead and working
with them at their pace. It’s about understanding their needs and what they are trying to achieve,” says Diane Downey, assistant head of ICT.

The council has been helping local communities with funding bids and procuring computer equipment, sometimes donated by local businesses that are upgrading their IT systems. It then gives help with setting up, training and providing ongoing support.

Sunderland has been looking beyond traditional locations for public access IT, setting up PCs in sheltered accommodation for older people and, in one case, at a Sikh centre. “We’re trying to understand where people in the community congregate. It’s understanding where the natural heart of the community is,” says Ms Downey.

Internet access is only part of digital inclusion. When the council entered the government’s Digital Challenge it began a large consultation exercise. The council looked at a wide range of technological interventions, including telecare systems to enable elderly or infirm people to continue living in their own homes for longer, and an activities smartcard for young people.

A particular innovation is a mobile phone service for older people suffering from dementia and autistic children.

Both groups can sometimes become confused for short periods while out and about. However, they can now hit a pre-programmed ‘panic’ button on their mobile which enables them to speak immediately to an operator who can help, and trace them on a map if necessary.

Ms Downey says: “There’s no single remedy with digital inclusion. It isn’t just about access to IT, it’s being appropriate to particular needs, working in partnership, being creative, being adaptive and working with the communities.” Stratford-on-Avon District Council has also closely linked its digital inclusion work to social exclusion and economic development.

Among its aims are to increase public participation in the way services are delivered; increase local learning opportunities; develop local economies; and support independent living. The result has been a wide range of projects that cross many service areas.

“Digital inclusion is not just seen as an IT issue; instead, it makes up an element of many people’s day-to-day job, whether [they are] directly involved in those technologies or indirectly by delivering new ways of working where those technologies are the background enabler,” says Jason Lorenz, business development manager for change and performance.

The council’s ‘Virtual District’ project addresses issues from information sharing between service providers to improving transport information for tourists visiting ‘Shakespeare country’. At a grassroots level, it has been providing computer access through village halls and other community focal points.

Local parishes have been helped to get lottery funding for their own websites, with the council providing a website template based on its own content management system, while it has also reached out to younger people by putting web content on to social networking sites such as Facebook.

A typical success story has been ‘The Hub@Blackwell’, an ICT-enabled village hall that uses youth club computers to offer ICT training and personal internet access, which is particularly valuable in an isolated area.

The challenge the council now faces is to develop the full scope of its digital inclusion work. “To move forward with the wider agenda of the Virtual District project will require a degree of external funding; the main challenge for ourselves at the moment is to identify appropriate funding streams and with our partners make successful bids,” says Mr Lorenz.

Staffordshire Moorlands DC’s digital inclusion work has led to a much better understanding of the needs of local communities. The information it has gathered on its information management system is being used to design services, find new ways of working, target resources and engage with disadvantaged groups.

Chris Elliott, head of ICT and digital procurement, says: “We’ve developed community websites and that’s helped to facilitate a conversation between us and communities. They started to talk to us about what’s particularly
important to them in their area.”

Residents’ feedback is being used to improve services and to help the council target its resources. Residents in one area regarded flytipping as a serious problem, but by using the data from the information management system
the council discovered that it was not as widespread as residents perceived. “What it told us was that it was one particular road [that was the problem]. That allowed us to target our resources on that road,” says Mr Elliott.

Using a variety of methods — ranging from mobile phone technology to a travelling ‘e-bus’ — the council has reached out to disadvantaged groups. These include older people, those in rural isolation, the economically
disadvantaged, and the disabled. Among its successes have been a £2m increase in benefits take-up and delivering training to older people who did not know how to use the internet.

The council has also had success with webcasts, with one planning committee meeting attracting 50 hits — not many in worldwide web terms, but significant for a local meeting.

Mr Elliot advises other councils to focus on what communities need rather than allowing technology to lead the process. “We can be too vociferous about the web, but it’s not for everybody. Some people prefer to pick up the phone, and they want to get through quickly,” he says.

Solihull MBC is also incorporating its digital inclusion work in a wider programme of regeneration and tackling inequalities.

The work has been taking place against a backdrop of considerable deprivation in parts of the borough. Research found that in the council’s 42 high-rise blocks, more than 70% of residents are not in work, and only 26% had
access to the internet.

The council and its partners implemented four key projects that led to Beacon status. As Ken Hawkins (Con), cabinet member for resources, explains: “Seemingly simple projects have helped us transform the lives and improve the opportunities of some of those really in need.”

The first was providing free broadband access to disadvantaged people in council blocks, supported by a charity
that supplies recommissioned computers, with the aim of improving employment and education opportunities.
Another was providing interactive CCTV in each of the 42 blocks. The project includes a concierge service and a 24-hour monitoring centre, and has resulted in 68% of residents feeling safer in their homes.

The other main initiatives included making sure people had fair access to a choice-based letting systems for community housing. The scheme was administered via the internet, which led to concerns about excluding people
who lacked computer skills. The solution was to give people access to special PCs in libraries which they used with help from library staff.

The last of the initiatives was a £1.6m project to provide online training for local people using computers in schools. The council has a range of other digital inclusion projects under way, ranging from telecare for older
people to engaging with young people via the internet.

The success of the digital inclusion work has been clear from resident feedback. As one woman told the council: “Getting this computer has made my life a lot easier. I can do my shopping; I can pay my bills; my son can do his
homework. We can just look up anything we need to, plus I have been able to enrol on a college course.”

Find out more

Sunderland City Council
Diane Downey, assistant head of ICT.

Stratford-on-Avon District Council
Jason Lorenz, business development manager, change and performance.

Staffordshire Moorlands District Council
Chris Elliott, head of ICT and corporate procurement.

Solihull MBC
Paul Jennings, ICT account manager,strategic services.
Tel: 0121 704 6000

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