People put a lot of faith in technology. Look at the way we have adopted smartphones and tablets to integrate our lifestyles between home and the places we work. We organise, play, record, make notes, listen and even educate ourselves using mobile computing power. But you often find that there is a disconnect between the promise of the technology and the delivery. It comes in all shapes and sizes, runs different flavours of software and hardware, in fact learning to use the technology warrants an education in itself. So when you hear about projects like Digital Champions it restores your faith in humanity.
Digital Champions was set up by North Tyneside Council (NTC) to bridge the gap for people who own mobile devices. Its aim was simple – to teach people how to use their tablet or smartphone to take better pictures, to use time-saving apps, to make the technology a useful tool and not just the latest gadget. Run in conjunction with the Voluntary Organisation Development Agency (Voda) it set out to tackle social and digital inclusion; to connect people by providing local residents with hardware, software and connectivity choices. From basic online skills to apps on the go, volunteers held drop-in sessions at libraries and community centres, or visited people in their own homes.
Statistically speaking, in 2012 there were 16 million people in the UK aged over 15 without basic online skills, with a high proportion in the later age ranges (55-75+). Socially and economically that means adults missing out on discounts on everything from insurance to energy costs, health benefits, employment chances and improved well-being just by feeling ‘connected’. Digital Champions brought together more technology literate youngsters with curious elders and the results were far more life affirming than you would find in naked statistics.
Back To The Future is a shining example. For this project Voda and NTC asked older people to pass on skills such as sewing, cooking, calligraphy and gardening in exchange for technological know-how from youngsters. It asked both young and old to muse on what technology would be like in sectors such as health, transport, communication and entertainment in five years time. Look at the video above and you get an idea of the warmth and mutual respect between the generations, all from such a simple concept. That is a real connection.
Or look at the University of Newcastle’s Social Inclusion Through The Digital Economy (SIDE) project, which set up a reminiscence room for people suffering from dementia. This innovative ‘living room installation’ was created to provide a therapeutic interactive space for people dispossessed by mental health problems. SIDE has a multi-million pound budget (and has just opened a £2m cloud computing centre), Voda and NTC had a tiny fraction of that, but both recognised the value in creating life chances and positive associations through technology.
In a grand finale for Back To The Future, volunteers, dignitaries and project leaders met at Northumberland Square in North Shields to bury a time capsule with an Iron Key secure USB drive inside containing the team’s five-year predictions. Tea and cake were provided in generous measures – seriously good – and people discussed their experiences. What it seemed was that, yes, connecting people to digital futures is a worthy aim, but without human interaction it isn’t worth contemplating.