Supporting digital inclusion
I’m incredibly lucky.
I’m incredibly lucky because I’ve been working in the field of digital inclusion for a decade now – working first with a big national charity – the brilliant Citizens Online – and now with our own wee (but perfectly formed) community interest company – Mhor Collective. We believe that the internet has the power to change lives positively and that everyone should be able to make the most of all the possibilities and opportunities it can offer. It’s exciting, creative, and, hopefully, useful work.
I’m incredibly lucky because – thanks to support from SCVO through their One Digital Programme – I’m also working on a PhD at the University of the West of Scotland, to better understand how digital exclusion impacts on those at most risk of social exclusion, and what methods of support and engagement really make a difference. I love learning and I love my work – so this kind of ties everything up.
Doing research that matters
But I’m mostly lucky because the research isn’t a dusty, locked-in-a-cupboard-with-a-pile-of-books kind of research (although the reading is incredibly important – ask my supervisor) – but rather it’s participatory action research. This means that the research is informed by all the people around me – who are all experts in their own lives and experiences. It also means that we can work together on a shared challenge, trying to understand that challenge and then – vitally – try out ways of overcoming it. I like actually doing stuff. I don’t like to just sit and think about it! I like messy, complicated problems and working through them. And I especially like problem-solving with other people, because they know so much more than me about what might help them – so this kind of research is perfect for me.
Homelessness, social justice and benefits of the digital world
Which brings me to Streetwork. I’m also extra lucky because I’m playing a wee part in the amazing new Get Digital project, wearing all of my different hats at one time. We’re working together to create a far-reaching digital inclusion project which helps folk experiencing homelessness develop essential digital skills. It’s so incredibly vital, as digital impacts so much on all of our lives: securing housing, claiming benefits, finding employment, saving money, accessing basic healthcare. But equally as vitally, for staying in touch with family and friends – at home and abroad, for pursuing hobbies, and for enjoyment.
And yet people who could benefit the most from the internet often lack the digital skills and digital understanding to make it work for them – the ‘system’ is weighed against them. Individuals who have a disability, or who are struggling financially are far less likely to be able to engage online, which – as this report from the Carnegie Trust highlights – means that digital inclusion is an issue of social justice. Tackling the digital divide is critical to the future of a fairer society.
What people with experience of homelessness say about the digital world and what they need
At the very start of our work together, we spoke to people experiencing homelessness at the Streetwork Holyrood Hub to understand what was most important to them, to make sure that the project we’re embarking on makes sense. Those folk explained how the internet was vital – using Google Maps, they are able to navigate the city; Google Streetview helps when bidding on a property to get an idea of the area; Google Translate is a helpful stand-in when English isn’t everyone’s first language, and can even translate documents. Social media helps stay in touch with family and friends – which can sometimes support a path out of homelessness; and can also help folk find a place to eat with projects such as Edinburgh’s Soul Food sharing times on Facebook.
The people who worked with us at the Streetwork Holyrood Hub also explained how data privacy was a huge concern. At a time when people experiencing homelessness are being asked to share so many personal details with online systems, it is unsurprising that so many in this situation are worried about their privacy and what will happen with their data, and how they might keep safe.
People also explained the many challenges they have – for many, the internet is a confusing space: passwords and login details are hard to remember, Universal Credit forms are incredibly difficult, with digital support and access to computers stretched at Job Centres. Some folk explained how they found reading in English difficult and so interacting with these systems is really hard.
And people said they needed help in developing their digital understanding. They want to do this with people they trust and in a space they feel comfortable in. That’s why Streetwork staff and volunteers will make amazing digital champions – it’s a team absolutely committed to working in a person-centred way, to enable a life off the streets. One-to-one support, little and often, can help people develop the essential digital skills they need.
Building digital skills together to end homelessness
We’re hoping that our research together and the work we do together – the action bit of the research – will make a real difference to people experiencing homelessness and will contribute to lessening the real disparity caused by the digital divide, as well as usefully informing future thinking and research.
Blog by: Irene Mackintosh, researcher and training facilitator with One Digital, managing director of Mhor Collective and tweeting as @irenewarnermack