This post is part of a series of blogs sharing good news stories, positive practice and the range of innovative ways communities in Leeds are remaining connected through neighbourliness.
I’ve worked for Leeds Libraries for over 20 years and I’ve spent most of that time working on digital inclusion. I know that becoming digitally included can make a huge difference to the lives of the thousands of people in Leeds who are still offline. Because digital inclusion isn’t about digital – it’s about inclusion, and it’s about people. It’s about making sure that everyone can access all of the opportunities out there to live happy, healthy and fulfilling lives.
For the last couple of years I’ve been leading the 100% Digital Leeds programme. Our ambition for 100% Digital Leeds is that everyone in the city should have everything they need to make the most of the online world. We’re working with partners across the city to turn that ambition into a reality.
Digital inclusion and COVID-19
The importance of digital inclusion has taken on a new urgency as people are advised to stay at home to shield themselves or family members. More and more of us are coming together online to keep in touch and stay connected during the COVID-19 crisis. We’re setting up Whatsapp groups to talk to our friends and family, Facebook pages to find out what’s going on in our neighbourhoods and communities, taking part in quiz nights on Zoom and get-togethers on Houseparty. We’re ordering food, medicines and essential supplies online as well as educating our children and keeping ourselves and the family entertained.
But people who don’t have access to the internet, or the skills and confidence to use it, are becoming increasingly disadvantaged and isolated. This isn’t a problem unique to our city. Around the country and across the world the impact of digital exclusion on the most vulnerable in society is fast becoming a life or death situation.
People who are digitally excluded often face other challenges too. They’re more likely to be older, managing a long-term health condition or living with a learning difficulty or disability. They’re more likely to be living in poverty or on a low income. Their first language may not be English, they may be refugees starting a new life in the city, or they may be trying to overcome issues such as substance misuse, domestic abuse and mental health issues.
For too many people across Leeds, exclusion of one form or another is a recurring theme that is being exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis. A recent article in the Guardian warns that: “… the digital exclusion of some of the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable households and communities is having a devastating effect across the country.”
The 100% Digital Leeds team are hearing from our partners about people who have no money and need help to access urgent financial support, which is taking longer due to the current situation. We’re hearing about people who have phones but who are currently unable to afford data or credit to get support or stay in touch with others. We’re hearing about disabled people with no support network and no means of communicating with their friends and family. We’re hearing about so many different people who are finding this time exceptionally difficult.
But we’re also seeing the amazing efforts being made on the ground to tackle these issues – and we’re working alongside these communities to make sure that everyone can get online and get the support they need.
The 100% Digital Leeds approach
The 100% Digital Leeds team have a citywide responsibility to engage with professionals and practitioners, staff and volunteers, community based assets and people with lived experience of tackling barriers to inclusion. Our conversations with these groups do not focus on ‘digital’, they focus on people: who are they, what are the important issues in their lives, what do they enjoy and what challenges do they face? Our first priority is to listen and our second priority is to learn. We spend time in communities, listening to people with lived experience of poverty, inequality and exclusion. We work to build relationships based on trust, respect and understanding.
We’ve engaged with over 200 community groups and organisations over the last two years of the 100% Digital Leeds programme. Some of the groups we’ve worked with include:
- Neighbourhood Network Schemes helping older people to live independently
- Carers Leeds supporting carers in isolation
- Leep1 and other organisations supporting adults with learning disabilities
- People living with COPD through Breathe Easy groups and primary care
As we talk to organisations and get to know our communities that are most affected by social and digital exclusion, we work with them to find the right approach. The 100% Digital Leeds team are flexible, responsive and experienced at coming up with solutions to address the issues. We take a ‘furthest first’ approach focusing on the most vulnerable in line with the council’s ambition to reduce inequalities and improve the health of the poorest the fastest.
A lasting legacy
When the immediate crisis begins to ease and life returns to a ‘new normal’ there will be people who fear a return to the ‘old normal’, a time when social isolation was already a way of life. Some people will dread the long, dark, cold winter evenings when it feels safer to stay inside. There will be times when money doesn’t last to the end of the month. Or days when the negative impact of a mental or physical health condition makes it hard to find the energy to do anything at all.
But if those people have become digitally included then they will have new options and opportunities. They’ll be able to see their friends and family and connect to their community online. Being online means they’ll have access to cheaper goods and services and free options for leisure and pleasure such as reading, listening to music or podcasts and watching videos. Digital tools and apps can help them to self-manage their health conditions more effectively, giving them more control and independence.
The 100% Digital Leeds team have trained over 1,000 volunteer Digital Champions from communities across Leeds. These Champions are having positive conversations with friends, family members, work colleagues and neighbours about the benefits of being online. Our definition of a Digital Champion is someone who is supportive, encouraging and takes the time to find out about a person and which aspects of the online world would be beneficial to them. Our Digital Champions are building a culture within groups, organisations, neighbourhoods and households where they are actively looking for opportunities to support others to use the internet in a positive and rewarding way. This peer support is vital because helping people to overcome long-ingrained anxieties and negative thoughts associated with digital technologies can only be achieved through meaningful, trusted relationships. In response to the current crisis we’re moving our Digital Champions training online so that we can continue to reach more people.
We also know that community groups are stretched now more than ever. They’re trying to increase digital inclusion while juggling other priorities and an ever-increasing workload. To help those groups, 100% Digital Leeds launched a grants scheme in response to COVID-19 and we received over 150 applications in less than two weeks. We’re working hard to increase the funds available and we’re giving groups the resources and skills to develop their digital confidence and capability We’re building networks and delivering webinars to bring people together to share their experiences, discuss new ways of working and meet the needs of their communities digitally.
Our ambitions for the city over the next five years depend on digital innovations to deliver better outcomes for everyone. But we can’t meet the demands of the future without change, and the current crisis has thrown that reality into stark relief. We want to move to a whole system approach across places that enables people to independently look after themselves and improve their lives, to connect them to their communities and a wider circle of care and support. We can use some of the latest technologies to make this happen, but if we don’t increase digital inclusion then tens of thousands of our most vulnerable residents will be left behind as others move on without them.
We will continue to work with and within our communities to ensure that everyone benefits from a truly 100% Digital Leeds.
If your organisation would like to be part of the 100% Digital Leeds movement, you can get in touch with the 100% Digital Leeds team using the contact form on our website.
By Jason Tutin
Digital and Learning Development Manager
Leeds City Council