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Digital inclusion – Staying online

Rapid changes in digital technology pose challenges for tenants and landlords alike. Louise Kingdon asks how the social housing sector should respond

Daily communications, tasks and transactions are increasingly required to be done online, and those who don’t use the internet are continually left behind. How many times have we heard that statement? I have heard it often over my four-year career in digital inclusion. But the context has changed. When I first joined Melin Homes in 2010, we were talking about a larger proportion of society that was missing out from being offline. Now the group is much smaller, but the disadvantage faced by those individuals is much greater.

With the introduction of universal credit, our residents face financial sanctions if they don’t go online, which is of course a concern to all. But more worrying still, the increasing focus on technology is going to continue to prevent those who are offline from functioning and participating in society.

How then should the social housing sector safeguard against such trends?

Firstly, I would argue that housing associations need to capitalise on the benefits of digital technology as have those in the private sector. Digital is not just threat – it could also be an opportunity. For instance, by investing in technology, housing associations could save considerable resources by introducing agile working for staff, thereby reducing business mileage and office overheads. Investment in technology could also create preferable, user friendly online services which would reduce incoming calls and the amount of printed materials sent out to residents.

These are both policies adopted by Halton Housing Trust, which claims they will offset the financial risk posed by welfare reform. Currently, we at Melin Homes are piloting a project where residents can receive a free tablet for their comments on our residents portal. We hope that the feedback from this project will guide us to invest in quality digital services that have been solely designed by customer experience.

Secondly, where the provision of core services within the housing sector is concerned, we can no longer afford to keep digital inclusion on the periphery. Indeed, with every post office, bank branch or library that closes, the opportunity for residents to access traditional services diminishes even further. Having a well-informed work force – one which is familiar with the factors preventing people from going online – is one way of limiting the damage caused by digital exclusion. Any housing officer could, for instance, advise residents on where to find their nearest wifi hotspot and how to buy a tablet for as little as £30, thereby ensuring that residents get the advice they need to access online services. In that sense, digital inclusion is no longer a role fit for one individual.

As Communities 2.0 is stressing in its final push, every member of staff should be familiar with the barriers to getting online and the means for overcoming them. At Melin, we have created the iTeam from volunteer members of staff who are enthusiastic about sharing how technology can help people. While they are helping their colleagues with mobile phones and printers, they are also ensuring that the ethos of digital inclusion is embedded throughout the organisation.

Thirdly, as the infrastructure and market forces in Wales are not currently providing residents with decent broadband at an affordable price, I suggest that housing associations should seek to provide this service where it is feasible to do so. Community Housing Cymru, in collaboration with representatives from several housing associations and the Welsh Government, has already given considerable thought to this subject. However this has not proved to be a straightforward process as the success of large scale projects rely heavily on pre-existing infrastructure and concentrated housing stock.

That said, there are several relatively small steps that housing associations could take in this context, each of which would significantly increase wifi access to residents. Take, for example, the advantages of using wifi boosters, such as those provided by Meraki. As several housing associations have already demonstrated in their main offices and sheltered schemes, it is possible to use such devices to extend pre-existing broadband lines securely and at little cost. Housing associations should seek to transfer this knowledge onto other agencies that their residents are likely to use.

Finally, housing associations should continue to seek to work in partnership at a local level. After all, it is only through working intimately with the Job Centre and training providers that social landlords can acquire a complete understanding of the digital needs of their individual residents. But collaboration on a national scale is equally as important. As I have learnt by chairing the CHC Digital Inclusion Group, Welsh housing associations are each facing a similar set of challenges. Only by sharing good practice and pooling resources will we be able to adapt in this ever-changing digital age.

Louise Kingdon is digital inclusion officer at Melin Homes and chair of the CHC Digital Inclusion Group 




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