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David Wilcox

Lessons from digital skills projects - grassroots connections and personal interests matter most

3 min read

While helping people connect and use the Internet doesn't in itself create a more networked society and stronger relationships, being unable to engage online does reduce the options for individuals. That affects one in four people in the UK.

Just before our event in City Hall with the Deputy Mayor I talked to John Perkins about the challenges of helping people access and use the Internet - whether for shopping, looking for work, connecting with friends and family, or pursuing personal hobbies and interests.

After working with BT on digital inclusion, John spent a year with Doteveryone projects in the two London borough of Croydon and Lewisham. As the project report says:

The projects were based on open partnership and collaboration, and we worked closely with the local Councils, our Principal Partners and a range of local businesses and community organisations from the public, private and not-for-profit sectors.

Many partners provided volunteer digital champions from their own staff to help residents improve their digital skills. Others provided venue space, kit and low-cost connectivity.

John explained that there were three elements to the projects: Digital Zones providing drop-in sessions supported by volunteers; Deeper Dives to explore how to motivate people with specific needs including older people, the homeless and young people not in education, employment or training; and Community Engagement projects owned and managed by local groups.

Some of the greatest learning came from this work in the community, including:

  • what interests those offering help doesn't necessarily appeal to community groups - so projects have to be co-designed
  • people learn best from repeated, informal, face-to-face and one-to-one support
  • talking about technology, Facebook and social media doesn't engage people- it's what people want to do with it that matters
  • it is essential to go where people are - not expect them to come to a central location
  • word of mouth is the best way to reach people

John said there were a lot of benefits for those volunteering to provide support - including meeting people and situations outside normal work experience, and a sense of personal empowerment and reward from using skills to help others.

Overall we agreed that there was enormous scope to make more of the assets that London has in this field. Projects are not connected and cooperating, partly because funding is competitive. We need different models.

One more task for London's Chief Digital Officer, when appointed by the Mayor.