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Bron Afon builds community hub round next-generation kiosk



Special focus: Digital inclusion

In many parts of the UK it is taken for granted that most people will have access to the internet at home, but in some places this is far from the reality.

In Wales, only about a third of people on average have home access; and this, combined with other social problems such as relatively low education attainment and high unemployment, can magnify the effects of digital exclusion, says Lukasz Kuziow, digital inclusion co-ordinator at Bron Afon Community Housing.

Bron Afon is a social housing body set up in 2008 in the county borough of Torfaen in South East Wales, managing 8,000 homes. Recently, it surveyed its tenants on digital access, and the results were a concern, Kuziow says.

"Only 38% of our tenants reported having a computer with internet connection in their home," he says. "Many identified the cost of fixed lines as a particular problem, or a lack of cellular coverage which can prevent mobile internet access."

Access is not the only problem excluding people from digital services, Kuziow says: lack of awareness of what services are available beyond a few web sites and apps can also be a barrier, and these skills problems can begin early in life.

"The gap really starts from the very early stages of education where people are having problems, and some pupils are failing to attend schools altogether. Nearly 50% of our tenants stated that they had no qualifications, resulting in low literacy and numeracy levels, and high levels of unemployment."

Against this background come new external pressures such as the need to prepare for public services provided as digital by default, such online employment searches for Universal Jobmatch and online welfare benefits application, he says. Some 70% of Bron Afon tenants claim welfare benefits, and 70% of Universal Credit claimants need to claim online by 2017.

"There are quite complex changes being imposed on people.

"They are faced with many issues such as remembering numbers they have been given by universal jobmatch, reference numbers, passwords, remembering how to log in to all the online services, and manage the inboxes correctly."

Tenants also need digital skills to effectively bid for properties online if they need to change houses to avoid the new under-occupancy penalty, commonly known as the "bedroom tax", Kuziow says. "Home-seeker and swapper has gone digital by default in Torfaen from 1 April, which means 1,000 of our tenants are in danger of being excluded."

Add to all this the fact that 90% of all jobs will require IT skills by end of 2015, and a pattern is created of severe social exclusion stemming from digital exclusion, he says.

To combat this, a series of community projects have been launched drawing together funding from a range of sources.

These include the Tech New Age Project, funded by Communities 2.0, a Welsh Government programme backed by the European Regional Development Fund. The project engaged with more than 500 older tenants in 21 Bron Afon retirement housing schemes to have fun with online entertainment and social media while learning key skills.

A separate Communities First Digital Inclusion project offers taster sessions, skills training and help to jobseekers with Jobmatch and other services, using low cost refurbished equipment and supported by volunteers. And Bron Afon has also joined the Digital Deal, a series of government-funded pilot projects led by social enterprise Tinder Foundation testing innovative ways to get social housing tenants online and improve their digital skills.

Part of this Bron Afon Digital Inclusion Project has included creating 'Community Connection Hubs', based around not only laptops and PCs but a technology first in fashion for digital inclusion more than a decade ago: interactive kiosks.

After early interest in kiosks, the home internet access and mobile revolution saw them fall out of favour, as they often used slow, inflexible technologies that could not match the internet access people were finding elsewhere. Now however, a new generation of kiosks supported by high speed internet access is finding favour with many tenants as a more usable way of accessing digital services, Kuziow says.

Bron Afon has installed the 'KiOSK' device from social enterprise Social Telecoms. They feature safe internet access; face to face video; e-payments; e-learning; and employment searching.

In terms of positioning and management of the booths, the project builds on the legacy of an earlier kiosk project implemented by Torfaen in the first wave of kiosk enthusiasm some time ago, he says. They use Android based touch-screen technology, which is easy to use and familiar to how people already operate smartphones or tablets.

"The old kiosks were focused on information on Torfaen and tourism, with no wider information - not least because they were based on dial-up technology, so towards the end of lifespan were not suitable for purpose.

"But the new kiosks have a well-developed interface, so people can reach the service they are looking for at the click of a button, reducing queuing times and encouraging people to navigate through all the services. They are inside a soundproof booth, so people will feel secure and safe to tap in details or speak to somebody using videoconferencing."

All the projects are aimed at securing a future for Torfaen in which local people are better off, better educated, healthier, more confident, and more socially included, Kuziow says: a lot of benefit to flow from grassroots digital inclusion.
Pictured: Daffodils in bloom outside the Blaenavon World Heritage Centre, Torfaen

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