On the road; taking Digital across Somerset

November 24, 2023

It’s a Friday, and I’m in the car, zipping across the gorgeous Somerset Levels.  I’m passing through small, but not-unsubstantial villages and small towns; places like Curry Rivel, Hambridge, and Puckington. As I skirt along the edge of the Dillington Estate near Ilminster, I realise that my Spotify has cut out entirely and that I’ve not had phone signal since turning off the main road.  The lack of signal here in South Somerset is part of a much bigger problem; one that I’m heading out to help with today.  I arrive in Ilminster and am still without a mobile signal; the only way to get online in many parts of town is to have a broadband contract.  About 6000 people live in Ilminster, and some of the families here struggle to find the money each month for their broadband bill.  If they fall too far behind on their payments or end their contract, they are likely to become digitally excluded, and that’s a real problem, especially when they’re job seeking or have kids relying on a connection for their education. They are not alone; there are 2.5 million households in the UK who face the same struggle right now.

Today I’m visiting Charlotte*.  Her son pays for her new broadband connection and he’s hoping that she’ll learn how to use the refurbished iPad I’m delivering today.  Charlotte is mostly housebound due to a combination of mental health difficulties and being ill from her cancer treatment.  She has been invited to attend a weekly online NHS session to help manage her pain.  Charlotte’s MacMillan Nurse referred her to Spark iT, the charity project I head up.  Our delivery partners, Donate IT, have provided a donated, refurbished iPad, saving it from landfill.  By the end of our session today, she’ll be able to turn the iPad on, and off, charge it, and connect it to her broadband.  Next week we’ll start working on basic navigation and internet searches.  We’re probably about ten weeks away from Charlotte being skilled enough to independently join her online NHS session.  Charlotte is frail-looking when I answer the door, and when I hand over the iPad she asks what she owes me.  She fights back tears when I remind her that there’s no charge for this service and I’m just happy to be able to support her.  We spend an hour and a half together.  20 years ago, Charlotte used a computer at her old job, so she picks up this new technology much more quickly than expected.  As I leave, she checks I’m coming again next week, and I’m more than happy to agree – Charlotte is great company.

From Ilminster, it’s only a 10 minute drive to Chard.  I arrive and make my way to Eleos Café, a local favourite, and when I walk in the door there are signs advertising our weekly, free Digital Café.  Two volunteers and three regular attendees are here already, devices everywhere, hot drinks and lots of chatter.  Michael* is here again this week.  He has been coming for almost six months now.  He is in his 80s and was extremely isolated during Covid-19 on the family farm.  Each week, he pops along to enjoy a cup of coffee, a chat with his favourite Digital Champion, and to learn a little bit more about his phone.  After six months, he’s now an active part of his family’s WhatsApp group, and he’s booked tickets for he and his wife to see a show at a local theatre.  His digital confidence has soared, and he now tries new things on his phone by himself, in between sessions.  Our volunteer team has the option of registering Michael on a wide range of self-guided online education modules, and he’s now capable of accessing these independently.  But Michael prefers the social, friendly café setting.

Just before the café slot closes, Carolyn* calls in.  Carolyn’s got great digital skills, but her phone is so old it no longer updates and won’t download new apps; she often runs out of data.  She can’t afford to top-up her data and definitely can’t afford a new phone – she recently left an abusive relationship and relies on Universal Credit while she looks for a job.  I sit with her in a quiet corner of the café and she’s articulate, funny, and shows great skill in setting up the new phone provided for her by Donate IT.  A SIM card containing free calls, texts and data, donated by Vodafone UK, completes the package.  We talk about her getting a LinkedIn profile to help with her job search, and she registers with a few of the free digital training courses our project is connected to.  I ask her if she would be interested in volunteering for a couple of hours each week to give her some new work experience.  She takes my card and says she’ll call me early next week after checking in with her case worker because she’s really interested in the adult safeguarding modules we offer volunteers.  As if on cue, one of the café volunteers comes over to tell me they’re away next week at a family event, and just like that, Carolyn says she’d love to help out.

It’s been a hugely rewarding and busy day, and as I drive back along towards the A303, I reflect on the fact that I’m part of a large group of people across the county who contribute to this community work every day.  We’re a network of people who utilise our own skill sets to help our neighbours enjoy the same access to digital that we enjoy and benefit from.  Some of us organise, some of us deliver kit, some of us fundraise, some of us provide skills support, and some of us collect and refurbish devices, but all of us are trying to make a dent in numbers that we all want to change, that 10.2 million people in the UK lack the most basic digital skills, excluding them from government, health, and business services, including entertainment and connectivity.  If you’re reading this and think you or your organisation can help Charlotte, Michael, or Carolyn, please get in touch with us at sparkit@sparksomerset.org.uk.

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Samantha Briggs
Project manager delivering digital inclusion in Somerset

*All of the people in the blog have had their names changed, and some of their circumstances slightly edited to protect their identities, but are true representations of individuals amongst the >2000 people Spark iT have worked with over the past 18 months.

UK statistics provided in this blog come from The Good Things Foundation’s Digital Nation UK 2023 research, available as an infographic, here: A4-GT-DN-2023-InfoGraphicAW-Bleed-NoCrops.pdf