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Three year research project explores possibilities to tackle the digital divide in Kent

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood January 20, 2023
Aided by LatCo Cantium Business Solutions, the project saw how the use of tablets, Alexa and internet-enabled services could help tackle the digital divide in the ‘Garden of England’, Kent

An image of an Alexa devide
(Image by Heiko from Pixabay )

A local government pilot to see if the use of tablets, internet services and voice-activated digital devices could ease social isolation among older people has provided highly useful insight into how to ease digital exclusion.

The project was a key part of EMPOWERCARE, a three-year technological and social innovation research project implemented by Kent County Council.

EMPOWER is an on-going EU initiative involving 13 organizations on the coasts of England, France, Belgium (Flanders) and the Netherlands to “strengthen economic, social and territorial cohesion.”

In Kent, this part of EMPOWER was deployed with the help of a local public sector specialist IT services provider, Cantium Business Solutions.

Cantium is a so-called Local Authority Trading Company (LATCo), and so is wholly owned by the County Council.

The aim of the 12-month trial was to see if connectivity could create resilient communities and reduce individual frailty and loneliness for those aged 65-plus.

It also looked at how tech could help Kent residents aged over 50 who had at least one chronic health condition.

A final question the Council wanted to answer: could access to the Web allow these residents to better manage their health and wellbeing?

The context, says the Council’s Senior Project Manager in Kent Adult Social Care, Georgina Walton, is the fact that 29% of the UK population has very low digital engagement.

That’s a number, she adds, that rises to 54% of elderly people aged 75 and above.

Full device and network control

Some 80 Kent residents were selected for the EMPOWER Kent trial, which ran from June 2020 to June 2021.

They were loaned devices and provided support to explore how tech could help them.

Initial figures here were modest - this involved around 10 Samsung devices and Alexas, she says.

The first wave of the scheme concentrated on tablet use.

Kent’s partner handled the procurement of all chosen devices, managing their full cyber security protection, then their management during the project, including their delivery and connectivity.

Working with the Council, it also decided what apps were best included on each device, which additional ones were available to download, and which sites should be blocked and inaccessible.

A full call and data plan for the members of the public in the trial was also set up, with SIMs onboarded when put in participants’ hands.

This meant it was very straightforward for users to attend health and other service appointments online via video call.

They were also encouraged via a number of ‘Digital Ambassadors’ to explore apps and websites to support positive health and wellbeing choices. Half participants were supported on a 1-to-1 basis, with the remainder supported via a number of group sessions held in a number of county libraries and community hubs.

Residents signing up for the trial were also asked to access educational resources online, plus try and learn digital skills to become more comfortable with online services in general.

Finally, the company set up a pilot support portal so all devices can be ordered, tracked and supported, as well as second and third-line technical support.

After a period, devices were collected and cleaned, then reloaned to the next part of the group.

A few months into the trial, for clients with Wi-Fi already installed, a small number of Amazon’s Alexa cloud-based voice service products were provided.

The idea here, says Walton’s colleague Emily Paulding, a Senior Project Officer at the County Council, was to get trialists to use speech to contact friends and family.

Later, Kent occupational therapists were consulted on how to add new ‘skills’ residents could use, like getting guidance when they told the devices they were feeling stressed.

‘Overcoming fears’

In many ways, the fact the pilot commenced during the UK’s first wave of COVID-19 lockdowns was ‘rather timely,’ Walton says, as the call to reduce social contact and help to reduce the spread of the virus was the perfect catalyst to ask people to try online shopping or banking for the first time.

Triallist reaction was very positive, says Walton.

For example, one trialist said:

’The scheme is a very good idea as it allows people to overcome their fears and learn how to use [technology]; thank you to all the team for helping us.’

Another said:

The tablet, together with the help of the volunteer, made me realize how much I can do with a smart device. I am much more confident in using tech now, and will be purchasing a tablet.’

Walton comments:

What we have found is all around the positive impact that having access to those solutions has had on people's lives.

Residents told us it has built their confidence and reduced their social isolation, because they now realize how they can so easily utilize technology and the Internet to interact with others.

A lot of data was gathered in the trial, says Walton.

For example, the most common applications used and discussed by participants were email, browsing of the Web, use of maps, social media sites, as well as video conferencing.

Detailed results are now being analyzed by a local county university, Canterbury Christ Church.

Using tech to help ageing populations

But a more immediate impact has been how much the trial has influenced a much more ambitious imitative - ‘Digital Kent.’

Set up in response to COVID-19 in 2021, this is a £10m project, of which £2.5m is aimed at specifically tackling digital exclusion across the county.

Projects under the Digital Kent umbrella that are already up and running include plans to build community Wi-Fi networks, use of 4G routers to get families connected, more loans of tablets and smartphones to groups like Ukrainian refugees, and the setting up of a series of local digital hubs to enable people to get connected to digital services.

Advice on how residents can access cheaper ‘social’ broadband tariffs is another service offered by the scheme.

Summing up the main result of the project for her and her team, Paulding concludes:

We've got an ageing population in Kent, and whatever we can do to make sure we can care for and deal with the future challenges that's going to pose for them is key.

In response, digital has proven to be an obvious solution we should all be exploring.

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