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.

6 thoughts on “The wheels on the bus…

  1. Pingback: The wheels on the bus… – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

  2. Helen, we have acquired an old library bus for Digital Durham and are signing it now. Its focus will be advocacy, help, why rather than technology. The broadband on the bus goes Superfast.

  3. Our bus will be parked at Conisbrough Gala tomorrow 3/8/13 from 11am to 4pm assisting local residents to make financial savings using the internet as well as sharing Learn My Way fabulous new Being Healthy course which directs individuals to use the NHS Choices site. The bus helps us is by offering a visual focal point of access where we can engage with future learners and offer one off IAG. If we didn’t have the bus as an engagement tool we would probably be in a gazebo somewhere in the middle of a field just like everyone else. The bus offers a visual memory as well as a great service.

  4. Lack of access to mobile/satellite or basic adsl in rural areas means buses aren’t a lot of use. South facing hills stop satellites working and most villages can’t even get 2G round here let alone 3G. The focus has to be on the pipes, or you can’t help the people.

  5. Helen, i managed the Switchover Helpscheme Outreach buses for the Digital Switchover, and we delivered over a 1000 events, please feel free to contact me

  6. Great to hear that buses are proving a practical possibility for some of you out there. Hopefully you’re the tip of the iceberg and using buses for outreach activity (not only for digital inclusion) is more sustainable than we might have thought.

    I absolutely agree that it all comes down to the connectivity being there to support the work though. It’s a shame when it’s not – in rural communities where people are more spread out and public transport is less frequent, having the support come to you can be so valuable. Hopefully the development of new mobile broadband technologies and investment in pipes as well as people will mean the help can go to those who need it wherever they are.

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