An alliance bringing together the public, private and voluntary sectors has been supported by Stockport Council to help tackle digital exclusion. Local residents have been trained to become “digital champions” and a dedicated helpline and a device lending library set up. Since the programme started in 2018 thousands of residents have been helped improve their digital skills, reduce the risk of isolation in the process.
What was done?
The “DigiKnow Alliance” was established in 2018 in collaboration with a number of delivery partners to help ensure digitally excluded residents gain the skills, confidence and access they need to use the internet to benefit their work, health and life.
At the time research showed many adults in Stockport were lacking the basic digital skills they needed to participate in the modern world. Some 28 per cent of the population were only making limited use of the internet and a further 13 per cent did not go online at all.
The council takes the lead strategically, but it is delivered by the Starting Point Community Learning Partnership, which train local volunteers to become digital champions. The champions provide one-to-one support to people as well as running group activities in community settings. By the time the pandemic hit there was a network of more than 30 champions.
Stockport Council Communities Manager Clare Redfern said: “The three main barriers to getting online are lack of motivation, lack of skills and confidence, and the cost of equipment to access the internet. Motivation has been a significant barrier among the older population, but digital exclusion is something that can affect people of any age. This was at risk of leaving them isolated as well as widening inequalities in terms of work and education.”
In March 2020 the alliance was awarded £50,000 from the Get Greater Manchester Digital Fund to expand its work. This came as the pandemic hit and allowed DigiKnow to adapt the way it worked, with the digital champions quickly trained to offer sessions via phone or on Zoom.
A new helpline was also launched as well as a DigiKnow library, which lends residents devices and provides them with data. This was funded with the help of money provided by the Department for Education, O2 and council funds. But there were never going to be enough devices, so Community Computers, a local recycling charity was welcomed to the alliance. They repurpose the spare devices that many people and businesses have sitting around in their drawers and cupboards. Unused devices can be dropped off at any Stockport library.
Prior to the pandemic, more than 8,000 residents had been supported to gain digital skills by the alliance. Demand grew since COVID hit – there have been more than 4,000 calls to the helpline, hundreds of Zoom skills sessions and around 1,000 devices lent out.
One of those to benefit was 91-year-old resident Mable. She really struggled during the first lockdown and was becoming increasingly isolated. She was supported by the digital champions and a device was supplied to her, allowing her to connect with her family – some of whom lived abroad and she had not seen for years. Mable said “Just being able to speak to my own family has helped me a great deal. Once I spoke to them, I felt more cheerful. It was lovely to be able to speak and see my family like that.”
Councillor David Sedgwick, Cabinet Member for Citizen Focus and Engagement, said the alliance has played a vital role in keeping communities connected both before and during the pandemic. “We put people at the heart of everything we do and we want everyone to benefit from the internet and see for themselves the positive changes that being online can make to their work, health and life. This scheme is helping to bridge the gap between those offline and those online and will help to ensure no-one is left behind.
Ms Redfern said one of the key factors in the success of DigiKnow is that it is seen as part of the community.
“It is not viewed as a council service and that is a real strength. It is seen as a community initiative and is delivered and designed in collaboration with local organisations to really benefit the people who need that support the most.
“And because of that we find that people are very responsible and careful with the devices. They get loaned out normally for up to three months and we find that in the overwhelming majority of cases the devices get returned and get returned in good condition. This is a great example of how working collectively we can achieve much more”.
The goal now is to build on the innovation that has happened during the pandemic. Ms Redfern said: “There is lots we want to do now. We have a steering group that meets every two weeks and a wider alliance group that meets quarterly – and the focus for both will be how we maximise our reach. Developing digital skills is now more important than ever.
“We want to build on the network of champions and increase the numbers and look for more opportunities to support our communities. The libraries are open again – they are important as they provide people with free access to the internet. But the device library and helpline are here to stay too. There will be a hybrid model going forward as some people are not ready to return to face-to-face activities.
“There is so much that has been achieved so far, but there is still lots to do to reach out to every part of the community. It is not just about social isolation – it is about work and education opportunities as well.”