Connecting our communities

I’d like to share some of the good work that we have being doing over the last 18 months both within our Digital & Customer Services and also by the community and voluntary sector to help those that do not have a device or connectivity.

The UK has made five years’ worth of progress in one year in terms of its digital engagement. A further 1.5 million more people are now online, increasing the percentage of people online from 92% in 2020 to 95% in 2021. However, those who are not engaging effectively with the digital world are being left behind. Technological change means that digital skills and access to digital connectivity are increasingly important for connecting with friends, family and communities, accessing information and services and meeting the changing demands for day to day living. This is leading to an increasing digital divide and giving rise to inequalities in access to opportunities, exacerbating digital poverty. In 2021, there remains 2.6 million people completely offline, 39% of whom are under the age of 60, dispelling the idea that all offline people are older, with 11.9 million adults still lacking essential digital skills. The pandemic has exposed systemic weaknesses in digital infrastructure, digital skills, digital poverty at all age groups and further isolated those with existing vulnerabilities, such as mental and physical disabilities, those socially excluded and already in financial poverty.

Birmingham has seen an improving position over recent years, and has now moved to 91.4% (2019) from 88.6% (2018) being digital included. The percentage of digitally excluded people has reduced from 11.2% in 2018 to 8.6% in 2019, and no doubt this will be further reduced in 2021 once the Office for National Statistics (ONS) Reports are released for Birmingham. Digital & Customer Services have taken the lead on bringing together Council teams, voluntary and commercial sector to tackle this and has facilitated the co-production a city-wide Digital Inclusion Strategy and Action Plan following workshops and consultations with city partners and stakeholders. This two-year city Digital Inclusion Strategy outlines how we can join up services, challenge inequalities, and make the most of all the skills and opportunities that we already have in our city. This strategy is being launched today, on 30th November.

Staff within Digital & Customer Services have taken the lead to develop initiatives and work with City and regional partners to increase digital inclusion activities for citizens and communities. Some examples include:

  • supporting the establishment of the West Midlands Coalition for Digital Inclusion to share good practice and connect practitioners together.
  • securing £0.5million for a Computer Loan scheme as part of the PURE2 project to provide connectivity and devices for vulnerable citizens.
  • supporting the Digital Education Partnership to deliver over 1,000 devices to the vulnerable school children who were ineligible for the Department for Education scheme.
  • distributing for free 647 Council desktop computers to charities and community organisations as part of our “Computers for Good causes” initiative.

It is this latter initiative that is starting to have a far reach across Birmingham with 85 charities and community groups within Birmingham and the wider West Midlands signed up for support. Example organisations include Refugee support, Homeless, Diaspora community support (e.g. Angolan Community in the West Midlands), Religious community organisations (Mosques, church groups, Sikh Gurdwaras, etc.), Elderly support and inclusion groups (e.g. Age UK), Children’s support (E.g. Barnardo’s), Mental Health Support organisations, Women’s refuge and Domestic Violence support and Disability support organisations, with 51 of those organisations collecting desktops, laptops, screens, keyboards and mice to date.

Last week, one of those organisations (Holford Drive Community Sports Hub) came and collected 6 devices. I was privileged to welcome to Lancaster Circus Lincoln Moses (MBE, Founder and Chair) to offer my personal support for the work our team are doing. The Holford Drive Community Sports hub provides Sports facilities run by the community, for the community, creating opportunities without prejudice, opening up sports for all, encouraging healthy lifestyles and community cohesion.

Each device distributed will touch many individuals who need help getting online, building their confidence and skills to improve their outcomes for them as individuals and their families. The benefit of these devices to Citizens is significant and multi-faceted – including but not limited to access to information and educational resources, improving access to better employment opportunities, social connection and community, and improvements in physical and mental health. We are not just touching one life here but many lives. We should be really proud of the real difference we are making here.

I particularly want to thank Raj Mack, Ilgun Yusuf, Sameena Asmat, Emma Coles, Christopher Rose, Carl Barnett, Surita Solanki, Phil Giann, everyone in the IT Hub, and most importantly, those volunteers and community leaders for all the hard work on this.

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