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Digital inclusion project binds university to Leicester community



Special Focus: Digital Inclusion

Digital inclusion work is connecting a Leicester university to its local community in an area where fewer than 40% of residents have home access to computers, the project's manager has told

The DMU Square Mile project, launched in 2011 by De Montfort University, was announced last week as a community impact award finalist in the national Tech4Good Awards 2014.

The project's "IT4Free" programme draws on the university's technology resources, academic knowledge, student volunteers and partnerships with local employers and organisations such as Hewlett-Packard, the NHS, Leicestershire Police and charities including The Prince's Trust, Diabetes UK, YMCA and Refugee Action. Elements have included teaching hundreds of people basic IT and social media skills in a community IT suite helping build further IT suites in schools and community centres.

"The local authority had data which suggested that less than 40% of the area had access to a computer", says Mark Charlton, Square Mile Manager at De Montfort University. "It is a hugely transient area, with many people on low incomes, people who have moved in from overseas, and lots of rented properties. There are 57 different languages in the community we try to support."

The project's work in schools, including IT training for both children and parents, has been essential to establishing community links, Charlton says. "Channelling our projects and opportunities through the schools is a good way to work with the community, because if we can win hearts and minds at a young age, they will hopefully be inspired over time to look at different types of computer work."

Other elements of the project have included a "hackathon" where computer science lecturers and students came together over 48 hours to build mobile apps to help solve problems put forward by Leicestershire County Council social services.

One of the apps that was created proved particularly successful, with development continuing to the point that it was made available last month to download as a free Android app from the Google Play store, Charlton says. The "AutisMe" app, created with a group of parents who run a support network for families of children with autism, acts as a "passport" for young people with autism, helping them explain to enables a young person to explain their viewpoint, needs and challenges to others such as teachers, friends, carers, work colleagues or the police. It can also help them build a personalised support team and emergency contacts.

Earlier this year, DMU Square Mile also hosted the regional event for the national "TeenTech" programme, a community interest company run by TV science presenter Maggie Philbin which stages one-day events to inspire young people from backgrounds who would not normally go into science careers, to consider working in science and technology.

The 2014 East Midlands TeenTech day attracted about 300 schoolchildren onto the university campus for demonstrations and activities showing how technology is being used by companies and in research. And the university is likely to host the event again next year, Charlton says.

The Square Mile projects are delivered with the help of university student volunteers, which not only benefits the community but is of huge benefit to the students themselves both in terms of the learning experience - putting their coursework knowledge into practice - and in helping them find work afterwards, Charlton says.

The work can be included in students' higher education achievement reports to show potential employers, and some even leads to specific qualifications and certificates, he says. "Students who come and deliver projects are getting an exceptional learning experience."

In turn, the university as a whole is strengthening its connections with the local community, Charlton says. "We work hard at widening participation, bringing different people from different social groups in to university. We think it is a responsibility of a university to be seen as a public good."

Other finalists in the Tech4Good awards community impact category are Casserole Club, an online network helping people share home-cooked food; Yimby, a crowdfunding platform for social projects; WIMPS ("Where Is My Public Servant?"), a citizen journalism project based in Northern Ireland focused on politics and public services, and run by and for young people. Overall winners will be announced on 10 July.
Pictured: A Leicester resident being taught to tweet at a DMU Square Mile "IT4Free" session.

DMU Square Mile:
Tech4Good Awards:
AutisMe app:

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