For ten years, Dorset’s Digital Champions have been inspiring digital inclusion and transforming lives. Rachael Rowe reports
Dorset Council is celebrating a decade of award-winning by its team of digital champions, in getting more of the county to use the internet.
Most of us are quite comfortable with online shopping – or even opening a copy of the BV Magazine. But in an ever-more digital world, what about those people who find accessing the internet a challenge?
In the first ten months of 2023, Dorset Council’s digital team were contacted by almost 2,000 people and a further 900 calls were made to the hotline. The Lloyd’s Consumer index identified that 63 per cent of the UK population has a very high or high ability to use the internet, but 27 per cent has low or no ability – and that’s exactly where Dorset’s Digital Champions have their focus.
A trailblazing project
Lyndsey Trinder is the Route to Inclusion project officer at Dorset Council, focusing on getting Dorset people confident in using the internet. She has worked with the team for five years and credits the project to one person’s ’tremendous foresight.’
‘When I joined it was known as the Superfast Dorset Team and concentrated on getting superfast broadband to everyone. However, my manager saw that the basic skills and abilities to be able to adapt to broadband just weren’t there – we were only doing half a job.
She had the foresight to ask the then Dorset County Council to look into and develop this area – and she was given free rein to get on with it.
‘Our digital inclusion work in Dorset was way ahead of its time. It’s quite an achievement – no-one else is celebrating ten years.’
We are the champions
One of the pivotal elements of getting more people to use the internet was the introduction of Digital Champions into the community. Lyndsey is incredibly proud of the group of volunteers:
‘Oh they’re lovely … amazing. Around three-quarters of them have a background in IT or software, and they come from all walks of life. They really need strong people skills as well. One of the big things they have to do is to win the trust of those people who don’t really want to be online – they need patience plus patience plus patience.’
Mark Jago has a military and technology background and volunteers as a Digital Champion in Gillingham. He runs a session each Saturday morning in the local library.
‘I got involved because I saw the frustration on social media, people not able to get things to work with their computers. I saw there was a need to help people with IT issues ‘People generally know more than they think – it’s often just a confidence issue.
‘There are all sorts of things we can help people do. For example, we’re helping a couple of Ukrainian refugees at the moment – they just need some support to use the internet. We’ve also helped people with Excel spreadsheets, and we have saved people money by showing them how to look online for better deals one energy bills. We saved one person around £600.
‘And then the other day we helped someone complete an Australian visa online so they could go and see their son.’
There are 45 Digital Champions spread across Dorset in 39 locations. All the libraries have support, and two GP Surgeries, in Poundbury and Weymouth, have a Digital Champion.
Lyndsey says: ‘We work very closely with the NHS and we can help people use the NHS app, for example. But that isn’t very exciting! If we want to engage people in using the internet we have to find something that interests them. One of our champions had a reluctant gentleman come to see them – he just didn’t seem interested. But then he mentioned that his son was in a rock band in the 80s, so they started looking him up. Sure enough, they found lots of mentions of his son – and that got him interested!’
The team has helped many people over the last decade. Lyndsey remembers one case in particular that still gives her goosebumps today.
‘It was in 2020 when we were distributing IT equipment. It was near Christmas, and one of the social workers came to me because she had just met a deaf man – she could sign, and she realised that she was the first person he had communicated with since the start of the first lockdown.
We gave him a smartphone and at the time I wondered why we were giving a deaf person a smartphone – but he used it to video call other signers and joined a WhatsApp group with signing friends.
‘It changed his world.’
Being left behind
Lyndsey is concerned about how to meet the offline population.
’Things are changing so fast. I worry these people will be left behind. A lot of things are going exclusively on line and people are missing out.’
Mark also recognises that even people who are online don’t always realise the extent of things they can do.
‘We were at a meant’ health event recently and, although people said they used the internet, we were able to say: “But do you know this?” It really helps if you can enable them to look more widely at what is available to them.’
The team has just won a Connection Britain award for its work on spreading and embedding digital knowledge. They trained other teams, including librarians and social housing staff who can also help people with online tasks so that they become more confident.‘A simple five-minute interaction can make a significant difference,’ says Lyndsey.
- Find out where your nearest session is, and more about Dorset’s Digital Champions here.