Digital Inclusion Journey in Redbridge

In the London Borough of Redbridge (LBR), digital inclusion has not been a simple matter to address. Within LBR, we estimate 35% of residents are digitally excluded, 66.6% of residents are from an ethnic minority group, and for 24.5% English is not a first language. 

Focusing the need

During the COVID-19 pandemic, being connected was no longer a luxury, but essential. As the pandemic moved everyday functions such as education, work, and health services online, typically in the home, within Redbridge, relying on a scattering of publicly available Wi-Fi networks to connect online like schools, libraries, cafes, and community spaces, as the pandemic restrictions increased the closure of public locations, focused the need for residents to have digital connectivity an inclusive way.

Identifying the need, we added questions on Digital Connectivity in surveys. In a Housing survey we established 51% of our residents accessed council services on a smartphone. We also knew of ‘not spots’ in the borough where there was no connectivity. Staff were also asked to complete a survey on Digital Skills. Establishing the scale of the issue and having the data provided starting points to action. 

Users need to be able to use relevant digital services needed for example for studying, working, online banking, and e-commerce in a reasonable manner; and as the Council continues to move services online, the cycle of digital inclusivity is apparent.

The challenge we face in this digital age is time poor employees with increasing priorities and little-to-no dedicated funding addressing the disparity.  Reaching those who are digitally excluded is an extensive process; most Local Authorities use digital channels for mass, low-cost distribution, comms and quick and searchable services which exacerbate the issue. 

How we support our residents

On a day-to-day level, our Contact Centre and Homelessness Hostels provide free-to-use computers with staff on-hand to guide residents through our online digital services; for instance, completing a form online. We’re fortunate to have bi and multilingual staff, speaking with residents in their native language and the LBR website is equipped with Recite Me providing language conversion. 

Across the Borough, a range of digital inclusion offers are available providing digital skills training and free digital connectivity. We encourage our voluntary and community organisations and our internal support services to use the Good Things Foundation offer, to list publicly available digital inclusion offers, bid for donated and reconditioned hardware, access free SIM card data to give to residents in need and, importantly, donate devices – Redbridge donates 1,000 laptops

Last year, an LBR Digital Inclusion programme was shortlisted for an MJ Local Government award; a programme of events, including pop-up training sessions within the Borough, were hosted by LBR staff and our partners who volunteered their time, knowledge, and expertise for free. ‘Let’s Make Tech Inclusive Week’  got people excited and engaged with the diversity and vast range of activities that tech enables. Removing the ‘ivory tower’, experts spoke about crime tech, autonomous vehicles, the data engineering and insights into online dating, as well as fantastic charities like Gig Buddies who digitally connect less-abled people with volunteers to attend and enjoy live music performances. 

Improving Digital Infrastructure

In addition to devices, skills and support, digital connectivity requires Digital Infrastructure. Across Redbridge we are partnering with a range of service providers, our current programme of work includes:

  • installing high-speed fibre connectivity across our social housing portfolio and deploying small cells on lampposts to ensure quality connectivity in ‘high-data traffic’ areas such as visitor attractions. 
  • building a high-speed, business quality, dark fibre backbone, hard-wiring our CCTV network whilst providing a fibre trunk to spur off fibre into our main business park, and across the borough to support early start-ups and SMEs
  • encouraging further fibre investment that will provide residents with a choice of high-speed packages at a range of costs including social value tariffs. 

In turn, these initiatives will support our Regeneration Team in attracting future investment into the borough, benefiting our residents and businesses and hopefully eliminate digital poverty. 

Looking ahead

In Redbridge our learnings have resulted in a mainstream approach, not to limit the work to a person or a team but to share our findings and overtime embed digital inclusivity in our offer to residents. During discovery work for new service builds, we work with the service users, staff, residents and specialists such as frontline social workers and GPs to understand what issues a digital service or a digital communication channel will face. These learnings inform the build, if they cannot be addressed we look at other means to respond, but the key is not to ignore what the findings highlight. 

Technology is an empowering tool. Digital channels provide quick, efficient ways of transacting and with advances in AI, technology is exploring ‘human’ elements such as sentiment, voice recognition of words that may indicate risk to life or self-harm. 

We too are looking at how our digital social services platforms can perform better, reducing confusion by signposting people – not just on the website but signposting to support in the community – suggestions to help the seeker find what they need in and be able to support loved ones, be it a suggestion of joining a local knitting club or where to purchase medical equipment. 

The EU has set a directive that all Government services will be available on line by 2027. However, uptake only succeeds if the user engages. 

Cassandra Gardiner
25 March 2024 ·
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