|Issue:||Europe I 2008|
|Topic:||Digital inclusion and community engagement|
|Author:||Leighton Andrews AM|
|Title:||Deputy Minister for Regeneration|
|Organisation:||Welsh Assembly Government|
Leighton Andrews AM, is the Deputy Minister for Regeneration of the Welsh Assembly Government. He was first elected to the Assembly on May 1, 2003. Mr Andrews is the former Head of Public Affairs for the BBC and lectures at Cardiff University Journalism School. He was the co-founder of the Yes for Wales campaign. Mr Andrews studied at the University of Wales, Bangor and the University of Sussex.
Today, people who do not know how to use or take advantage of information and communication technology, ICT, are increasingly excluded from economic and social benefits and have limited, if any, access to a wide variety of services. The Welsh Assembly Government launched initiatives – in English, Welsh and other languages – to ‘digitally include’ the poor, elderly, handicapped, minorities and other disadvantaged groups by way of a number of imaginative, often low-cost, projects that count upon local community support and participation.
Our lives are being transformed by digital technology. Shopping, correspondence and news services are just some of the areas of life and work being dramatically changed by email, the Web, mobile phones, digital photography and video. But people still feel comfortable saying, “I can’t use computers” when they would be very uncomfortable saying they were illiterate or innumerate. The danger is that people who don’t ‘get’ the new technologies could become increasingly socially and economically disenfranchised. Those left behind risk not just digital exclusion but exclusion from whole areas of life. Bridging the digital divide is central to new ways of viewing inclusion and exclusion. The European Union sees this as one of its highest priorities. Getting people acquainted with the new technologies is also important to drive the digital economy. There is no point in investing in expensive networks if people are not using them. In January 2006, the Welsh Assembly Government launched a new initiative, Communities @One, which set out to encourage community groups and voluntary sector organisations in the most disadvantaged areas of Wales to engage with technologies in ways that were directly relevant to peoples’ lives. The initiative has been supported by European funds and executed by the Wales Co-operative Centre, an organisation that supports the development of co-operatives and social enterprises in Wales as well as tackling social exclusion and bringing economically inactive individuals back into the world of work. More than 200 projects have been funded by Communities @One, varying from €200 to €500,000 in grant size, covering a range of organisations and activities. • Age Concern, a leading UK charity working with older people, launched a project called ‘Go for IT’ in the Neath-Port Talbot area, providing digital cameras so groups can take pictures during countryside walks. ‘Go for IT’ enabled people to learn about digital technology, while increasing confidence and encouraging more regular exercise amongst participants. • Volunteers in three South Wales Valley areas, many of whom had never engaged with ICT before, set up and managed three, month-long community radio stations. Starting from scratch, the groups were trained to use digital broadcasting equipment, as well as the Internet and Microsoft Office for research purposes. • Pigeon-racers in South Wales were still working from paper records. Now, they are using word processing, digital photography and email to keep each other updated, and to network ‘virtually’ with similar societies around the UK. • Groups throughout Wales have been engaged in developing digital stories about their communities using photographic and online archive resources. The imagination shown by people involved has been astonishing. Even those that have been working in this area for some time have had their eyes opened to the potential of digital inclusion and what it can do for people around Wales. Blind people, elderly people, children, disaffected young people, ethnic minority groups, teenage mothers all have become involved in creative ways. There are projects involving website design, podcasts, digital photography and film-making, community online shopping schemes, informal learning, word-processing and email classes, newsletter design, driving tuition, music composition, cricket coaching, astronomy, blogging, and many other schemes. There have been schemes developed in both the English and Welsh languages and in ethnic minority languages. Research has shown that if you live in more deprived areas, you are more likely to be digitally excluded; if you are older, you are more likely to be digitally excluded; if you are from social classes D and E, you are more likely to be digitally excluded than if you are in social classes A and B. If you fit all the categories you are facing a triple struggle. Communities @One starts from where people are at. Firstly, it recognises that provision needs to be locally available (complementing and enhancing existing community-based ICT facilities in some cases), and, secondly, that people engage with technologies where they can see the personal advantage. One of the most innovative aspects of Communities @One has been the use of a team of Community Brokers, based at various locations around Wales, including local authorities and voluntary bodies. The Brokers ‘mediate’ the development of projects and grant applications at grassroots level, enabling community groups and voluntary sector organisations to become ‘agents’ of digital inclusion – something that has proved particularly effective in the case of smaller groups and projects. The aim is not to strengthen the technical capacity of the community and voluntary sector as an end in itself (although this will happen), but to use them to reach their memberships and engage them in technologies. In some cases, it is clear that good projects would not have come forward without the brokers’ inputs. Communities @One provides a package of support that sets it apart from being a grant scheme and makes it much closer to a supported community development experience. This approach has the potential to be used as a model for other community engagement programmes in other countries. In practical terms, the use of community venues for any group work or training delivered by community groups and voluntary organisations to project beneficiaries, as part of their Communities @One grant spend, has proved useful. Such settings, coupled with training or mentoring delivered in a relaxed and informal style, has helped people to overcome any initial fear of the technologies being used, whether it’s been PCs, email, Internet, digital cameras, multimedia editing or office-based applications. There has been an active bias within the programme for projects that mentor the beneficiaries, instead of just situating of equipment. Training, too, has been delivered to a number of projects, by Communities @One on a range of topics including online safety and the engagement of hard-to-reach groups. The work of the initiative has been guided by an advisory body comprising voluntary, statutory and private sector organisations including telecom and media organisations. This group has worked collaboratively, without hierarchy and has provided a dynamic and creative environment, as well as providing wise counsel. Much has been learned that will help shape the future of the initiative and the approach to digital inclusion in Wales. A successor initiative is being taken forward by the Wales Co-operative Centre and discussions are being held with potential partners and stakeholders to help identify ways in which the Communities @One approach can be continued. Work will continue with community groups and voluntary sector organisations around digital inclusion in Wales. Special consideration is being given to ways to support the groups by developing income generation elements in future ICT-related work, as well as working with social enterprises. The Welsh Assembly Government’s commitment to encourage social inclusion through ICT will be reinforced through such sustainability. Over the past two years there has been a process of constant reflection to identify issues, weaknesses and difficulties as a basis for continuous improvement. This has included listening to feedback, which is helping to shape the direction of future policy. Communities @One has also sought to meet other organisations in Britain involved in digital inclusion, to learn from their work. We would now like to learn from the work of those involved in digital inclusion throughout Europe, to learn from their experience. Through Communities @One many more people are now imparting their new-found skills, enthusiasm and confidence to others in their communities, sparking a chain reaction that could be felt in Wales for years to come.