How St Augustine's Centre are providing their centre users with technology
At St Augustine’s Centre, we have been providing Wi-Fi and technology to the homes of our Centre Users who often have very limited access to these essential provisions. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, our centre was a hub for coming together, dropping young children off at nursery, taking part in social activities, and learning English with our ESOL tutors. At the beginning of lockdown back in March, with Centre Users confined to their places of accommodation, the Digital Poverty they experience became even more noticeable than before. So while the Digital Inclusion Project began as a direct response to COVID-19, it is also part of a bigger picture in which digital access becomes a life-enhancing aspect of their time at home both during and after the coronavirus pandemic. To summarise what our Digital Inclusion Project has facilitated, it has maintained contact between Centre Users and the team in order to access vital casework support, maintained sociability and wellbeing within the community, provided education alternatives for children, continued our ESOL provision for adults, and improved digital communication between Centre Users and volunteers.
In terms of tech, we have provided Huawei Mobile Wi-Fi Dongles, pre-loaded with O2 data contracts, as well as (mostly refurbished) laptops, desktop computers, phones and tablets. Along with the tech has also been regular support with regards to its installation and usage, over the phone or using WhatsApp. In terms of activities, we have been running ESOL classes on Zoom, and we put on five weeks of online events as part of our Summer Programme, including a Language Day and an Anti-Racism Discussion.
Just under a third of our households received dongles, that’s 60 households. 30 families and 67 individual children benefited from the project. 16 people received refurbished devices. 33 ESOL students with dongles are currently engaging with online classes via Zoom, compared to only 4 of these people before they took part in the project. That makes a handful of new classes meeting up weekly and being able to learn, as well as socialise with others, in a time when neither of these can easily happen face-to-face. We recently discovered we are able to extend the dongles to a further 25 households which is amazing news.
There were a handful of things we took into consideration when prioritising who received Digital support. Those currently in receipt of asylum support or those who are destitute. Families with school age children who are in need of tech/data to aid with education. People with a limited level of English and/or engaging with ESOL at beginner/intermediate level. Those who have been identified as being particularly isolated (e.g. single men). We also took into consideration the current data and tech provision of the individual (in a House of Multiple (HMO)) or the household of a family unit, and how many people as a result will directly benefit from this support (i.e. if it is an individual in a HMO).
Other organisations such as Bristol Refugee Rights had used similar methods and we felt like it was the simplest and fairest way of doing it. Unfortunately, a criteria is needed to be adhered to in these situations but it inevitably comes with its disappointments.
If a longer timescale had been available, it might have been more feasible to do a full-scale assessment of our entire Centre User database in order to select recipients by calculating level of need according to the criteria. We tend not to have a lot of time at St Augustine’s Centre!
The dongles we provided used sim cards and mobile data, rather than actual broadband. The drawback with this was that a small number of recipients had poor 3G/4G signal in their accommodation prior to being given a dongle, meaning the dongle did not improve their connectivity. Technical issues, to do with things like charging the dongle or typing the password correctly, were difficult to solve from a distance. Because of the restrictions of COVID-19, these troubleshooting conversations were mostly attempted either via WhatsApp or telephone call, however being able to go to somebody’s home to do this would have been easier where there is a language barrier. Sometimes the sharing (or not sharing) of dongles within households was another thing that was difficult to monitor remotely. Lastly, dongles and data for 85 households is expensive!
Great feedback. Centre Users have expressed the project’s positive outcomes on their English learning and their children’s schoolwork, the lessening of financial worries, having better quality and faster internet, and lifting of spirits and mental wellbeing.
Take the time to find the best tech and data deals. Check which providers have the strongest coverage in your local area. Read up on the tricky legal stuff in order to come up with an ‘agreement’ (we used this as opposed to ‘contracts’) that your service users are required to sign. Get as many people as possible set up with and used to using Zoom, as it is a powerful communicative tool that gets us through these bizarre lockdown times.
We applied for a number of grants and the receipt of two of these made up most of the project income. Community Foundation for Calderdale contributed as part of their Community Resilience Fund, and so did Tudor Trust. In addition, Thomas Reuters’ West Yorkshire branch donated as part of the National Lottery Community Support Fund, and an individual from the branch made a further donation out of personal funds.