Breaking the lock on the internet

“For me, one woman sticks out,” recalls Robert Grant, a manager at Gloucester Street Community Centre,She was 77. She came to the conclusion that she’s never going fluent in technology, but she said simply, ‘Just to survive in society, I need to develop these skills.’ That,” says Grant, “is why we do what we do.”

What Grant and his colleagues at the community centre do is to equip local peoppele with the skills and equipment they need to survive in an increasingly digital world. During Covid, it became clear that many people could not handle the shift to online existences.

The centre, which has been a focal point of community life for more than 20 years, had to close its doors, while the predominantly black local community found itself suffering from a disproportionately high number of deaths.

While the centre was able to keep offering some support to people by telephone, it quickly because clear, says Grant, that “the future is online. You have got to have online facilities.”

The future is online.
— Robert Grant

This is true in times of disaster, but Grant notes that it’s also a wider and more enduring shift. Even if you want to park your car these days, he says, you need an app.

“Wolverhampton wants to become a digital city, however in order for everyone to benefit, we need to ensure that everyone is 100% digitally included,” he explains, and while this comes with many advantages, there are many within the community for whom it will be a barrier. “Many of our seniors have a mobile phone, but smartphones don’t mean a thing to them.”

The centre has a strong group of employees and volunteers ready to leap into action to help people up-skill for the new era. However, teaching someone how to use the internet is not much good to them if they don’t have a smartphone or computer that they can use to access it.

This was the issue that Grant and his team were grappling with when word got to them of a scheme that the City of Wolverhampton Council was running, gifting digital devices to voluntary and community sector organisations to empower their clientele to get online.

An issue for all ages

“We started very small,” says Heather Clark, Head of External Funding and Digital Projects at the City of Wolverhampton, “the Council bought 50 tablets and worked with seven voluntary community sector organisations to get them out.”

Now the lending initiative has snowballed, with almost 1500 digital devices being brought to local people through 40 trusted partners, “We can’t order the devices quickly enough!” Clark exclaims.

We can’t order the devices quickly enough!
— Heather Clark

The council had long understood the need for improved digital inclusion, and had strong connections with the local voluntary sector. However, it was the Covid pandemic that made the city aware of the depth and diversity of this issue.

“I think there was always this assumption that digital exclusion was for older people, and it was their choice,” says Clark, “but it was more than that: 9 out of 10 people on a basic skills course could not get online to do their course because they didn’t have a computer and they didn’t have connectivity – 50% of adult education learners and even 25% of young people on an employment programme.”

In some schools too, it was revealed that during Covid, half of the kids couldn’t get online to learn, or were trying to get by sharing one mobile phone between three siblings for their internet access.

Those figures shocked the council into doubling down on the issue, committing to understand and address how the affordability of devices and connectivity, as well as skills, were blocking access to the online world.

The council managed to find a small budget to buy some tablets people could use to get online. However, the question remained how they were to identify the people in need of these devices, get them into their hands and make sure they could use them.

Links of trust

That’s where the links with the local voluntary community sector were vital. Catherine Perry, Development Officer for Wolverhampton Council explains that the scheme is “playing to the strengths of the voluntary community sector,” which “had been working with the council on a number of different initiatives throughout Covid.”

Because there were already lots of channels of communication open between this sector and the council, reaching out to them with this scheme was a no-brainer. Working with the voluntary sector meant that these organisations could directly identify their clients needing support.

People need to trust people that they work with and that are supporting them.
— Catherine Perry

Trust is a very important factor when working with vulnerable communities, and that was something that voluntary community sector organisations could bring with them to the project. “People need to trust people that they work with and that are supporting them,” says Perry.

To emphasise the currents of trust necessary for the project to succeed – trust between the council and the volunteer organisations, and between the organisations and their clients – organisations brought into the scheme were termed ‘trusted partners.’

Clark chalks it up to this trust factor that “after two years doing this, we’ve had our first attempted theft of a device. One out of 1000, not bad really!” Working with these partners also has the advantage that support can be tailored to the needs of each organisation’s user base. “One size does not fit all,” Clark points out.

Gloucester Street Community Centre was one such trusted partner. “I met with Heather and Catherine,” Grant recalls, “told them what we wanted to do, and they signed us up straight away.”

The growth we’ve seen in people learning how to use the internet is absolutely fantastic.
— Robert Grant
Now the centre has 68 devices with internet access provided by the council that it has loaned to local people in need of online skills. “The growth we’ve seen in people learning how to use the internet is absolutely fantastic,” Grant says.

Accessing the world

Clients are given devices and helped to choose and follow courses appropriate for their needs by volunteers at the centre. “We have all these volunteers, ‘Whiz kids’ if I could use that term, who live and breathe technology.” It’s not just digital skills that these volunteers need, it’s also patience and understanding: “It may take 10 weeks to open a laptop, turn it on and navigate to a webpage, something that you and I probably take for granted, but for that individual it’s a huge step forward.”

We’ve all had the experience of trying to talk to someone working in a bank, only to be ushered to a machine. Once they’ve mastered the basics, local people are often interested in understanding how to manage their finances online, as well as online shopping, health services and job-hunting.

An important issue for the centre is appraising people of the security threats associated with online activity, for example advising them against having email addresses that contain their full name and date of birth. “We had to tell them the risks associated with that,” says Grant.

We’re not saying ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that,'
— Heather Clark

An important part of the scheme, reinforcing the element of trust, is that recipients of the tablets can use them not just for training, but for anything they choose. “We’re not saying ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that,’” Clark emphasises. This helps them increase their familiarity with the internet and reinforce their training organically while helping them feel empowered rather than dictated to.

“We do have some restrictions,” Clark adds, “we’re not letting people use them for gambling sites, and…” her hands make scare quotes with her hands in the air, “…‘other things…’ but other than that, we’re not being strict.”

“The council encourages people to use the devices for their own personal and social means,” Grant reiterates, but the Gloucester Street Community Centre encourages people to concentrate on coursework by offering them incentives.

Those that show a serious commitment to using their devices for bettering their situation during the three months that they have the tablets on loan are gifted tablets or Smart Speakers of their own, with one year of free internet access.

The centre is able to gift these devices thanks to another project it is running with the Good Things Foundation, with the free internet data plans being provided through SIM cards by the UK’s major phone networks, such as 3, Virgin Media and Vodaphone. “But ultimately,” Grant attests, “the devices from the council really got people engaged.”

Growth focus

While the scheme comes with a cost, it also creates economic benefits by enabling people to further their careers, or to find jobs when they have been out of work for a while. “They’re looking for better jobs, or those who are unemployed are looking to progress to college or find a job,” says Grant. He recalls one local who was forced to leave his job when he became homeless. “He was desperate to work,” Grant remembers, “You could see the passion in this young man. He built his skills on the computer; he got a job in the security industry and is off universal credit.”

You could see the passion in this young man.
— Robert Grant

Like these local people, Wolverhampton Council is also working to expand its capacities. On top of the device lending scheme, the city is growing the number of partners that it works with. It is supporting another device lending scheme Black Country Connect for a Healthier Future run by the UK National Health Service’s Clinical Commissioning Group.

It’s also supporting Wolves Tech Aid, a device recycling scheme set up by a local tech firm, Learn Play, a local politician and the local football club, to get people and companies to donate their old devices rather than throwing them away. Once donated, devices are wiped and repaired before being handed over to children that need them via local schools.

Staying creative

The council is also looking to provide more public WiFi, and even working with mobile network operators to promote ‘social tariffs’ that provide lower prices for people receiving state benefits to subscribe to an internet connection.

The city also wants to expand the types of devices it is giving out, including smart speakers. “In reality, there’s certain people, namely my mother, who, no matter how many times you show her how to use the device, she’s…” Clark pauses, “…not very strong.” These speakers would also provide a way to help people with sight problems access the internet, and the council is already cooperating with a local sight-loss charity to make that happen.

In reality, there’s certain people, namely my mother...
— Heather Clark

Wolverhampton hopes to connect with other European cities through Eurocities to swap inspiration on even more innovative ideas in the field of digital literacy and digital poverty. “We’re wanting to do more creative stuff,” says Clark, “and that’s an opportunity with Eurocities, to potentially connect with other cities that have done something really exciting.”

Digital literacy and access are not just about the convenience of shopping and banking online. The true wonder of the internet is that it opens up connections between you and the whole of the world, giving you the chance to be a truly global citizen.

But what Wolverhampton and its network of trusted partners, including Gloucester Street Community Centre, have shown is that being enabled to hook into the global is a great way to strengthen communities at the most local level.


Banner Image: Leaners on the Wolves Digital Online Course meet with Councillor Ahmed (Cabinet Member for Digital City) at the Gloucester Street Community Centre (LTR) Hafsat Baba, Gloucester Street Learner, Sam Saini, Gloucester Street Leaner, Councillor Ahmed (Cabinet Member for Digital City).

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer