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Digital inclusion – Technology and tenants

What do digital inclusion and digital first really mean for landlords and tenants. Brett Sadler explains the thinking at North Wales Housing

At North Wales Housing we have been looking at the challenges of tackling digital inclusion. With the phased introduction of universal credit, all organisations are now considering a ‘digital by default’ future, meaning that tenants in the future will be expected to claim their benefits online. This represents a challenge to our organisation in terms of how we can both mitigate this risk and also ensure that our tenants have the best possible opportunity to be digitally included.

One of the main challenges we’ve quickly realised is that digital technology is developing so fast that putting in place solutions on one day of the week may make them potentially obsolete the next. OK, so this is a slight exaggeration, but the sentiment remains; keeping up with the speed of technological change is still a challenge. For example, it is forecast that this year the number of mobile phones in the world will exceed the population of the world and remember that many of these phones are internet enabled. Who would have seen this coming?

As part of looking at our approach to digital inclusion, we have been writing a digital inclusion strategy. The difficulty has been pinning down exactly what as an organisation we propose to do. It’s a given that we want to tackle digital inclusion and we’re more than happy to go on record stating this, but exactly how are we going to do this? It’s not as simple a matter as just putting aside some budget and knowing it will be fixed in a year’s time.

The first thing we did was to look at the national statistics available around digital inclusion. A few key standout stats are:

–        There are still a million people in Wales who are digitally excluded

–        One in five Welsh adults has never used the internet.

Source: Wales Co-op, Digital Inclusion: Stronger Communities, 2014

But we wanted some information about our tenants as well, so as part of our corporate tenant profiling and insight project we have asked a number of questions to our tenants about digital inclusion. The results to-date include:

–        21 per cent of tenants say they do not have access to the internet at home;

–        8 per cent of general housing tenants say they are not confident in their internet skills, compared to 24 per cent for supported housing tenants and 25 per cent for older person’s tenants.

We’ve got a lot more work to do to really delve into the details of these figures, but they have given us a clear guide on which areas to concentrate on. The basic internet skills training is now one clear strand of our digital inclusion strategy, based on the tenant profiling information above.

Other strands we are exploring are being able to offer cheap broadband/internet to our tenants, looking at providing internet hubs, having tenant digital champions and trailing the use of cheap tablets – a £30 tablet to be precise – made by a company called Datawind. It’s hard not to be impressed with what you can get for £30 – it might not be 3G enabled, but via wifi it works pretty well. As a potentially cost-effective way of getting tenants to be digitally included, it presents one potential option worth exploring. The phrase ‘throwaway technology’ has never been a closer reality. Of course we need to build up a business case on how we could use cheap tablets in the future (including support and maintenance) but the potential is there.

It’s also important to mention that we have another corporate project heavily linked to digital inclusion – our digital first project. The aim is to increase the number of tenants who access our services digitally. After all, more and more of us are expecting services to be available digitally, so why should this be any different for social landlord tenants?

I’ll finish by stating that the success to-date of organisations like Halton Housing Trust, which is (amongst other things) pioneering the use of tablets for its tenants to access their services digitally, in a ground breaking deal with O2, shows what is possible. Halton is able to ensure that any new tenant will not be digitally excluded (by providing them with a digitally enabled device) and as part of the deal, the tenant agrees to contact them digitally rather than by traditional face-to-face or telephone methods. This, Halton HT argues, frees up valuable resources it can then put into other key areas of service.

Brett Sadler is assistant director neighbourhoods at North Wales Housing




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