Draw upon the specialism of the voluntary sector to deepen digital inclusion

Draw upon the specialism of the voluntary sector to deepen digital inclusion

Schemes such as #GetOnlineLondon are a great resource to draw on if they can make access to devices easier and keep awareness in the public eye. However. it decorates a mere wall within the House of Digital Inclusion.

The work of the VCS on the ground, brokering the relationships, building trust and delivering when other projects come to an end (and the shiny tinsel falls from the tree) must both be recognised for the tireless energy piecing things together and, importantly, for the insight gained during and post lockdown.

The rich pool of specialism they provide should be informing the next phase of any London-wide (if not nation-wide) resource or asset. Our experience of working with ‘Big Name’ organizations during lockdown was often one of incomplete delivery and difficult processes.

The stories of donations were great but often the cost of these (in terms of the operation, the setting up and the sending back of items) was higher than if we can funded the data and devices ourselves.

Lessons had to be learned and continue so.

For me it’s a missed opportunity that the VCS leaders throughout COVID in London are not instrumental in the set up, and distribution side of Get Online London. The insights gained by organizations such as Community Tech Aid, CatBytes and Power2Connect could and should be harnessed to make the acquisition, set up and distribution of devices effective and hyper-locally relevant.

These are the types of organization that will fulfil referrals or set up an inappropriate device when the larger schemes can deliver on the ground.

Speak to organizations such as Millennium about how to ignite hordes of younger people hungry to learn coding and inspire the generations moving forward and to learn from hyper specialists such as Paul Clayton and Alex Barker about assistive technology, appropriate device set up and independence for disabled residents.

This is not a grumble, but just a reminder to everyone that there isn’t an end point here, we must and can learn, share and develop from each other – but to do so we must do so!

Digital inclusion can be about a transition or a step up in a supportive way

Digital inclusion can be about a transition or a step up in a supportive way

Following a recent podcast with Emma Weston, CEO of Digital Unite, I was inspired to craft the following words about where I think the true work is within the digital inclusion space and challenges in the workspace but not having assumed digital skills.

Digital Inclusion may feel like an impossible stairway to climb and difficult to make THAT ‘dent’ if you are trying to fix, bridge or solve it. And there is the flaw!

If we embrace that ‘digital’ is entwined and integrated we have a good starting point to choose the area for our work and what makes the most difference to the people needing support.

Our area is working with what is commonly known as the MOST EXCLUDED, a terrible term for people that often haven’t had the right environment, may have ‘missed a step’, given the wrong or no resources, have never been taught, never been shown whilst interacting in an environment that is only ever 80% complete, constantly changes, poor interface design, doesn’t actually link up, buffers and then stops or there is an error 404 page. None of this is actually a failing with the person and more a failure of delivery and environment, yet the impact is huge especially if we are looking to improve work opportunities for long term unemployed, homebound residents and the disabled.

Clearly, I’m simplifying and amplifying, and maybe ruffling a few feathers, but sometimes if feels as if we are asking someone who doesn’t drive to get into a car, with no dashboard, half a cup of fuel, no map and expecting them to get to Timbuktoo and then if they to not achieve this within an allocated time, penalise them. (Anyone who has spent even 10 minutes trying to assist a person with no smart phone and no email to apply for a rebate or regain access to Universal Credit may recognise this scenario)

It does feel sometimes that by looking at the big picture skims over the real needs of people and we may then miss the smaller opportunities and interventions which actually provide a ‘win’ for the person and can create a change. If people ‘succeed’ they are more likely to try again. The environment and method of support is equal to the ‘tech’ here or the hard learning.

In the workplace there is an extra dynamic; we become ‘business users’ whilst overlooking the fact that we are all ‘end users’ as well and we may not applying the same attention and support to our colleagues as we may the people we are working with.

Many skills we now have to adopt within the workplace are assumed and not trained in. If you have been out of work for the last 5 years for whatever reason and you come back into the office the jump from using say an old desktop version of Office 2007 to having to use web-based word is huge.

This jump can be enough to make someone feel really anxious and you may internalise a feeling of inadequacy, losing confidence which in turn will affect your ability to do your job. If someone has other support needs this may be amplified further.

Not having the assumed digital skills in the workplace can impact you directly in the pocket as well.

True story, take the zero hour contract delivery driver we supported trying to get some hours in the weeks before Christmas. Beyond the odd day here and there, hadn’t worked for 10 years due to caring duties and had to borrow a smartphone in order to log in and bid for jobs, reply and respond to other drivers so he could cover shifts (the best way to build up hours for a new driver). He had to learn how to use both google maps as well as their proprietary system whilst driving on the job.

At the end of the week, he had to log hours and submit invoices through this mobile phone, whether he had worked or not

In trying to support his person, I estimated that he was spending an average of 3 hours per week on digital admin just to do the job, yet this wasn’t classified as paid time. The only support he had was via a chat bot in the app that he wasn’t shown how to use or even told of its existence. By the time he came to us he was already at his wits end and was a final push.

With time, practice and patience he should have been able to reduce this to a minimal overhead of effort yet didn’t survive the probation. The pressure he felt by constantly doing it wrong or being late had its toll on his overall confidence and mental health.

The lack of digital support by this company is arguably discriminatory, but what if some peer support had been available? What if he had been able to sit with a cup of tea and go over the features of the app and practice using it with another driver – not a volunteer but someone recognised for their time. Surely a better investment than the HR costs of recruiting and letting someone go.

Digital inclusion isn’t simply about being able to or not, being included or excluded. In many cases it is about a transition or a step up in a supportive way.

This may not fix the digital divide but it may certainly help someone out of a fix!


An informal place to get support

An informal place to get support

Our Community Tech Support drop-ins are built on three principles:

  • Support is best placed where residents are already receiving other help or participating in activities.
  • Small group and peer support, not only motivate, but can provide the best environment to learn new things or to get organized without it being too overwhelming.
  • Traditional places of learning and refurbished libraries can be intimidating

We try to address these as best we can via our free to access sessions.

Between September and December 2021 we supported a total of 83 residents across 3 regular venues in Crystal Palace, Thornton Heath and Loughborough Junction where we helped with a variety of different challenges including:

  • Checking and refurbishing a ‘dormant’ laptop
  • Setting up a new iPad and iPhone, transferring data via cloud storage.
  • Setting up email addresses or unlocking online accounts
  • Storage: moving and deleting files on phones / tablets and laptops
  • Learning how to use a device and exploring settings and accessibility.
  • Learning how to use word, copying and pasting and formatting.
  • Using publisher to create a flyer for a new business start up
  • Building confidence around sending and replying to emails
  • Creating an account and making a first purchase online

Most importantly, however, we provided a quiet and friendly space to practice and have a little time to learn something new.

Our network of referring partners really help this initiative to work. With regular sign-posting by Age UK both in Croydon and Lambeth, the Living Well Partnership, Croydon BME Forum, Disability Advice Services Lambeth, Croydon Mencap, Harbour Recovery Service and Bromley Well, to name a few, we have a regular stream of newcomers. Many stop for a cup of tea and then continue to come back.

By giving people the time and space to understand their challenges and a gentle push we believe that Community Tech Support is a crucial local service to help people be more digitally included.

We currently provide 3 weekly sessions in South London with more planned imminently.  

Weekly Community Tech Support 

TUESDAYS 1.30 – 3.30 Age UK Croydon Brigstock Road, Thornton Heath. 

THURSDAYS 10.00-12.00 Platform Café, Loughborough Junction. 

FRIDAYS 10 – 12 Upper Norwood Library Hub Crystal Palace 

We continue to provide remote support and home visits for referrals. 

Our lockdown impact report is published

Our lockdown impact report is published

We are proud to publish ClearCommunityWeb’s impact report for March 2020 – 2021. It has been an opportunity to reflect, share and celebrate the difference we have made during what has been an extraordinary year. 

Despite the uncertainties and challenges, our numbers speak for themselves and we delivered 285 individual support cases for residents or referring partners via our Community Tech Support service, we trained over 280 people to use Zoom, delivered 27 Digital Life Skills webinars and launched our virtual Digital Awareness for Older People class which has since become our flagship. 

Our focus has been to help build confidence, be a safe space to ask questions and to increase awareness about online safety.  

We also distributed devices within our local area locally to provide internet access for the first time to vulnerable adults, volunteers joined the effort to help them get to grips with the basics and access other classes.  

This inspired a recycling and upcycling scheme where members of the community donated their devices that were then refurbished or distributed – in three months we distributed 45 smartphones, 32 tablets, 18 desktops and 12 laptops!  

We reached out to support other organisations as they adapted to a “new normal”, giving guidance and training as well as a suite of professional web services. Helping them continue to deliver their vital services at a time when they are needed most.   

This paved the way for new partnerships and funding opportunities to launch a host of new programmes, short courses and webinars. Offering community-based learning in a positive and supportive space at the start of their digital journey. 

“I feel a sense of pride in what I have achieved so far, but there is so much more I can learn. I want to continue this online journey. It has given me a new lease of life.” 

As we round off the year, this report has given us an opportunity to pause, take stock and reflect on all our hard work and achievements.  

Most importantly, it is a reminder of all the people at the heart of our work, driving us forward into the new year and beyond. 

You can download the full report here.

Speaking at Lambeth’s ‘Digital Access for All’ event

Speaking at Lambeth’s ‘Digital Access for All’ event

Being a panel speaker at the Lambeth Council’s “Digital Access for All” was a chance to celebrate some of the hard work done by the fantastic team at ClearCommunityWeb.

The event matched council and VCS initiatives with the private sector to demonstrate and explore some of the work within the Borough over the last year.

On stage I joined representatives from Community Fibre, Homes for Lambeth, Millennium Community Solutions, HubBub and O2 to explain why digital inclusion is important and the role we all play to provide support to community or enable those closer to the issue do their work.

The subject of accessibility quickly came to the forefront and that technology cannot be a panacea for deeper rooted challenges, of which there are many.

Equal access to information, services and engagement certainly cannot be solved with ‘digital’ alone as being a digital first society relies on accessible information which clear, coherent, accurate and complete.

‘Digital’ being employed to ‘fix’ this is likely to fail or may even make the problem worse, and then be blamed. (Remember Test and Trace anyone?)

Technology can and should improve access to these things, our vehicle or conduit, but cant make bad good.

Assistive Technology (AT) is a perfect if example of this; enabling people living with disability or impairments to use the internet, devices and to interact in ways other people take for granted. A point that Rev Gail Thompson (Millennium Community Solutions) made very clearly and is a champion in this area. Inspirationally, she also completed a masters degree solely using speech recognition software.

Technology should facilitate choice, not restrict it, and we should be able to employ the appropriate tools or channels for what we need to do, whether it is ‘digital’ or not.

It was great catching up with the people in the room, in particular, with our friends at Millennium Community Solutions, Community Tech Aid, Homes for Lambeth, Carers Hub, High Trees, WLM & Watmos.

The challenges of starting a digital learning programme during Covid-19

The challenges of starting a digital learning programme during Covid-19

Digital Horizons was one of the first programmes I worked on with ClearCommunityWeb, a social enterprise that provides digital advice and support to community groups, older people, vulnerable adults and carers. Digital Horizons started as an idea, to run a 12 week introductory training programme in using a tablet to help people get connected during Covid. 

The challenges of starting a digital learning programme during a pandemic with learners who have limited or no prior knowledge, their own individual needs, barriers and fears of technology is a complex process. I will navigate you through this journey, and unpack some of the key questions we faced along the way. 

Setting the Scene 

When we think of the horizon, it can feel like something distant, something unreachable. Sailing off into the sunset is an idyllic ending for a film. This voyage into the unknown is not fiction, it is not always peaceful or easy, and it is set in South East London. 

To be precise, the boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Croydon, where our beneficiaries start their journey of discovery with us. It can be bumpy, and comes with its own unique challenges, but with a bit of encouragement from our side and a lot of courage from theirs, it is possible. 

Martin, one of our other beneficiaries that joined our Digital Awareness For Older People classes during lockdown shared his experience with us, 

“It just seemed like another world I didn’t understand. So reluctantly, and with a bit of anxiety I got in touch with you and you’ve made it seem actually reachable. Which I very much appreciate. It’s something I could connect with, so that’s a big step forward. It’s not out of reach, because I really thought I was being left behind by the modern world.”  

Is there such a thing as the right device? 

Using a device for the first time can be daunting, overwhelming and scary. Caspar Kennerdale, the Managing Director of ClearCommunityWeb has likened this experience to, 

“If I walk into a DIY shop, I’m confused, I’m anxious, I don’t want to buy the wrong thing… It’s all the same thing but a different subject matter.”   

As a social enterprise, we don’t always have the luxury of purchasing the latest release or up to date model, and if we did I am not sure we would. Tablets have been the device of choice for this programme, due to being compact, with a larger screen and are generally easier to use. But they come in all different shapes, sizes, weights and price tags. 

Finding the most accessible and affordable option for a group that all have their own needs requires a bit of ‘trial and error’, we may need to return to the DIY shop a few times before we find the right drill bit or wall plug, may even make a few mistakes along the way. Its only through trying, and learning, that we find the right match. 

Can you identify the problem when you can’t see it? 

This can be the most challenging part of running a programme remotely. Asking someone to describe what they can see when they don’t know what they are looking at can take a few attempts. Solving the problem is the easy bit, figured out what the problem actually is, that’s a lot trickier. 

When technology feels so familiar, its easy to think its easy, but it really isn’t. The fundamentals have to be stripped right down, from writing ‘.’ instead of ‘dot’ in an email address or describing how to carefully close a pop up ad so not to be led down a rabbit hole for the remainder of the class. 

We don’t always get it right the first time, it takes patience, empathy and determination from both sides to support someone on to a Zoom class or log into their email for the first time. Its like piecing together a puzzle, it takes problem-solving and team work. The moment when you see their smiling faces on the computer screen, the feeling of happiness, pride and relief, makes it all worth it.   

How do you build relationships without meeting in person? 

We have run different piloted formats of Digital Horizons, a volunteer befriending programme and online group classes over Zoom but we do look ahead to running classes in person again. 

Like most things at the moment, it will be different but having the opportunity to actually meet learners in person, observe how they interact with the tablet and have that in-person teacher/learner relationship will make our work a lot easier and far less time consuming. 

We have all experienced, at some point, the cringing silence of a Zoom video call, the desperation on a facilitators face as they painfully pry responses from a shy virtual audience and the awkwardness of a breakout room with strangers whose video or audio is switched off. Developing relationships with a new group in the “real world” is hard, doing it on a screen is excruciating. 

It took a few sessions for our online group to warm to each other, have the confidence to ask questions and contribute in the classes. We did get there in the end though, with a good dose of silly humour and small talk, every class now starts with joyful waves and friendly chit-chatter. Its strange to think we have met never before, and may never will, but will always have fond memories of sharing this time together.   

And the result…? 

Weekly activities were provided to help practice and inspire to use the technology outside of the class and this has been the difference in the uptake of learning. 

By the end of the course, learners feel more connected to the community, safer onlineless anxious around using technology and helped to develop problem solving skills.   

Elsie, since, has decided to purchase her own tablet and will seek advice from ClearCommunityWeb to find herself a suitable choice and will continue to attend the Digital Awareness for Older People classes.

The Digital Horizon programme is an excellent programme to attend, if you are nervous about anything digital, you will be assisted with tender loving care from a team of experts. So get involved! It is the place to be guys!’  


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