Guest blog by Sue Kearney, CEO at The Hope Foundation
Digital connectivity and access is a social justice and social inclusion issue. COVID-19 has demonstrated the basic lack of access for many Middlesbrough residents leading to loneliness and isolation at this time. The move towards more digital services (health, GP’s shopping online) means that local people will become further and increasingly disadvantaged due to one or all of the following
- Lack of technical/digital skills
- Having the right kit/ devices
- Data and connectivity
It is important all of these areas are addressed. It should be a basic right of people in 2020 to have equal access. At the Hope Foundation we would like to see each area addressed and have a suggested solution for the 3 areas above.
1) Lack of technical/ digital skills
There needs to be ongoing, flexible and relevant ways of people learning the skills they need for their daily life and work (if appropriate). We currently do this through taught courses, online classroom and drop in support. This needs to be better planned across Middlesbrough across all people groups, ages and abilities across a wide range of partners and access points. It needs to be more flexible from taught to 1:1 sessions, tea and technology, remote sessions and fun online collaborations such as online bingo. There also needs to be targeted skills delivery to suit the individual needs.
2) Having the right kit/devices
There needs to be availability to devices especially for the most excluded whether school children, families or older people. We have been providing new tablets to residents through ABM and Devices.now partnership but this is not sustainable. This could be done through recycled kit and we are piloting a small digital amnesty project to collect unwanted but useable phone, tablets, computers etc. This is good for the environment and would provide a free (low cost) alternative. This could be further achieved through a range of partners collecting the kit ready for distribution to other partners who identify a specific need eg carers groups, domestic violence victims, individuals, learners etc. Businesses and projects could provide kit as they are able.
3) Data and Connectivity
Connectivity is a big issue and it is difficult to get data to the right people and there is an obvious issue of cost. There is a real need to get digital connectivity into the most vulnerable households. We have been doing this through ABM and Hope during lockdown as best we can. There is a need for a sustainable and long term solution. Hartlepower is looking at the possibility of setting up their own community hotspot with a community broadband offer. This could be replicated in Middlesbrough as well. In the shorter term, there is a need for other ways to purchase and donate data. Whether through SIM cards or Wifi dongles but the difficulty is the contract costs for this for the poorest people on an ongoing basis.
Digital access and connectivity are key to help address the needs in Middlesbrough. We see the Boho and the potential for us being a digital capital and yet our residents do not have basic access to skills, devices and connectivity.
I am keen to see this put into collaborative action across the Tees Valley but especially in Middlesbrough across all sectors. Please get in touch if you feel you can contribute, offer expertise and guidance or would like to be involved in any way.