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.
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.