The real deal

Today sees the announcement of the Digital Deal finalists – 12 brand-spanking-new landlord projects which will provide internet services and training to social housing tenants. (See the official announcement PR here).

Obviously every man and their dog in the digital world will be ‘welcoming’ this news and ‘looking forward’ to seeing the projects develop, and while I don’t ever like to be obvious (and would never dare speak on behalf of my Weimaraner) I’m afraid I can only echo both sentiments!    

I was actually one of a group of people – including Housing CEOs and National Housing Federation reps – who attended the birth of the Digital Deal. A good while ago we were all at a round table meeting hosted by Grant Shapps MP (then Housing Minister) and Martha Lane Fox (as Digital Champion), discussing ways in which people who live in social housing could be encouraged, supported or even wired-up to be able to become digital citizens.

The focus was on those people who don’t have the basic digital skills most of us take for granted but were lucky enough to have a landlord with a social conscience looking out for them. We talked about the need to kick-start action, about galvanising innovation, and about the merits of match funding.  And lo, the Digital Deal came to life – a Challenge Fund designed to stimulate Social Housing Providers to think deeply about how to help their tenants to get online, encouraging the development of digital practice through bidding for funding and planning for action.   

We at Tinder Foundation (our new name) were asked to run the assessment process and project oversight.  We’ve been astounded at the response from social landlords, the appetite for change, the creativity, and the enthusiasm for meeting the challenge laid out before them.  

Since that first Digital Deal meeting, digital exclusion has become even more important to both social housing providers and tenants, moving up To Do lists as Welfare Reform changes come into effect.  Universal Credit – as a ‘digital first’ service – will have a huge impact on social housing providers, radically reshaping the way in which they get paid their social rents. Digital awareness, digital systems and digital skills for tenants are no longer nice-to-haves. Social housing providers are getting ready, and the Digital Deal Challenge Fund is one thing on the crest of that tidal wave of action.   

Out of the 130+ housing providers who applied for grant money from the Digital Deal Challenge Fund, there are 12 whose ideas will now get that extra momentum that some pump-priming money will inevitably bring.  Of course we all wish it could be more, and I can safely say that the judging process was a long and difficult one. What we’ve ended up with, however, are 12 very diverse projects. They include plans to use community volunteer support and expert mentors, tap into residents groups and embed digital in everyday contact, plus technological solutions ranging from mobile internet wi-fi clouds to converting TVs into internet devices, buses, and recycling IT equipment.  

The plan is to take the ideas and lessons from their development and share them instantly with other social landlords via the Digital Housing Hub #digihousing – so that others can use the Digital Deal projects as catalysts for their own work.

At such a critical time for social housing tenants and providers, one thing’s for sure – any help and hints on how to inspire, support and link up tenants in our digital world will be very much in the spotlight.  

I hope that those bids which weren’t successful are not consigned to the bin, or even to the bottom of housing provider agendas. It would be great to see bidders push on to deliver their proposed plans with their proposed internal budgets – if on a smaller scale – and show us what’s working for them. It would be a shame to lose the thinking and the work which has gone into each proposal – because each one is part of the Digital Deal legacy, and can contribute not just to the success of the individual business but to the knowledge and sustainability of the entire sector.

In the end, that will also contribute to the well-being of tenants, some of the most vulnerable people in Britain.  And that, my friends, is the real Deal.

The wheels on the bus…

In the last couple of weeks I’ve seen more than one story about people using buses to deliver digital inclusion activities in their communities. You don’t see one for ages then three come along at once! (Sorry, I couldn’t resist).

You used to see internet-buses all the time – they were hailed as the ultimate solution to digital exclusion some ten years ago – but seem to have run out of steam (or petrol) since.

In Finland, the Netti-Nyse (literally ‘internet bus’) has been helping older residents of the town of Tampere for more than ten years, and I was particularly inspired by this tale of Estella Pyfrom, 76, from Palm Beach in Florida. She spent her savings buying and kitting out Estella’s Brilliant Bus with computers when she saw how many children from poorer families had little or no access to the internet and were being left behind as a result.

There’s been plenty of this kind of activity over the years in this country too – lots of it within the UK online centres network.

Doncaster West Development Trust’s ‘Well-being Bus’ travels to public events throughout the city encouraging members of the public to try Learn my way to get new digital skills. The bus even helps to pay for itself as the Trust rents it out to the local primary care trust which uses it to get out into communities and encourage healthier lifestyles and regular health checks.

Bus 2 Bus 1
Doncaster West Development Trust’s Well-being Bus

Meanwhile, the MK Dons ‘Dons on Tour’ bus delivers both digital inclusion and health and wellbeing courses to schools and rural communities throughout Milton Keynes.  Finally, in North Warwickshire, for many years the Branching Out Bus (or BOB for short!) provided 1-1 IT tuition and financial, housing and employment advice to residents of rural communities.

Unfortunately the buses don’t come without their share of problems. I know many others have been taken out of service due to costs like fuel, insurance, garaging and finding a qualified tutor/driver. At a time when most local authorities and library services have been forced to make cuts, it can be a very expensive way of getting out to the people who need support.

Over time, the feeling grew that buses were too expensive and putting some laptops and mobile dongles in the boot of a car was cheaper and gave more flexibility about where the internet sessions could take place. Although this option is much less visible to the community you ‘park’ in and loses much of the novelty value of a bus.

The pockets of success in the UK however, plus the resurgence of internet-buses elsewhere in the world, makes me think this might be something we need to look at again. The internet is more mobile now than ever before – with wifi, MiFi, dongles, smart phones and tablets on the move. No more expensive satellite dishes on the bus roof. If you don’t have the skills to use modern mobile internet, maybe mobile internet still needs to come to you – on wheels.

My view is pretty much 50/50 – for each internet bus that is a success there’s one languishing in a car park somewhere, so it’s not a silver bullet and I recommend doing the sums carefully.

But buses can be, in essence, the ultimate in ‘outreach’ – one of the things the UK online centres network does best. In order to reach the most disengaged and disadvantaged people, you have to go to them. In places where there is less infrastructure – for instance rural areas – buses might well be a viable solution.

I’d like to find out more about the challenges these services face, the cost-benefit ratios, and in a time when there is just less money around it would be good to hear how we might be able to support Brilliant Buses like Estella’s in more UK communities. Let me know your thoughts and do share your bus success stories or horror stories.