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Andy at North London Cares connecting with a neighbour on zoom!

Bridging the digital divide

Posted by Johanna Brooks on 30th October 2020

Covid-19 has changed the way our cities operate, maybe forever. But the divisions that have always existed within them aren’t going anywhere. So, for the last six months, 85 volunteers from Bank of America, Marsh, Goldman Sachs and Coutts have helped bridge the digital divide across our communities – spending 128 hours giving one-to-one tech support to 78 older neighbours through The Cares Family.

The British Film Institute’s 2020 London Film Festival went online. What used to be a lynchpin of London's cultural calendar, now proudly boasts that its recent edition was the first ever to be widely accessible wherever you are in the UK’ with 50 virtual premieres as well as countless online screenings and events. A year ago, there might have been an outcry at such a move (2019 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Roma was excluded from the Cannes Film Festival because it premiered online, eschewing the theatrical first-release model cinemas rely on to operate). And yet, just seven months since the UK went into its first national lockdown, one of the capital’s largest cultural happenings is no longer dependent upon the city itself.

In this and so many other ways, Covid-19 has changed the fabric of our major cities. A large part of the population in the UK no longer relies on cities as locations of work, culture and commerce. For so many, working from home has replaced the now unfathomable packed morning commute, and connecting with friends over Zoom, Houseparty, FaceTime and the like is now a normal alternative while meeting up face-to-face isn’t possible.

Those of us fluent in digital technology have adapted fast to the changes in how we communicate. Now instead of chatting over the kettle, at The Cares Family, we book a 10-minute ‘virtu-tea’ when we’re missing the connection that an office brings. The same can’t be said of people who either don’t have access to the necessary technology or who lack the digital skills needed to stay connected with friends, family and loved ones.

Digital inequalities existed before the pandemic, of course. In 2019 Lloyds reported that 11.9 million (22%) people did not have the digital skills for everyday life – skills like communicating, transacting, and being safe, legal and confident online. 52% of those people were aged over 60. A further 4.1 million adults weren’t online at all.

But the rapid changes in how we connect with each other and our communities have left millions more disconnected than ever before. When The Cares Family transitioned from face-to-face interaction to Virtual Social Clubs, we knew immediately that a large proportion of our older neighbours would struggle to make the transition. So, as well as establishing ways to connect the community through offline activities, we turned to our corporate partners to help our neighbours bridge the digital divide.

Signing one neighbour up to Zoom can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 4 hours, and with just 26 delivery staff across the country, we wanted a faster way to help more neighbours to connect online. So we created Zoom In Your Room – a two-hour volunteering opportunity for our corporate partners. Over the past seven months, 85 volunteers from Bank of America, Marsh, Goldman Sachs and Coutts have spent 128 hours giving one-to-one support to 78 neighbours. They have been helping older people like Mei, 69, from East London Cares, to use Zoom so that they can join our Virtual Social Clubs and better navigate the changing world:

“Thank you for arranging a lovely volunteer to talk to me this morning. She was very patient to teach me about Zoom. We talked for more than an hour. Thank you so much for all your help.”

Mei spoke with Sarah, 35, from Goldman Sachs through Zoom In Your Room.

It wasn't just our neighbours that took value from these sessions. For volunteers like Jemma, a Marsh employee who volunteered on three Zoom In Your Room sessions, the chance to connect with neighbours from different backgrounds and learn about their lives was what made this opportunity so special:

"I met such lovely people who shared some lovely memories and experiences of their lives with me as part of our chats. I met a lady who was born in Botswana where I have travelled, a lady from Hiroshima, Japan and also a lovely lady from Scotland who moved to England with her father - a London Docklands worker. These lovely people's stories will stay with me forever and I hope that I managed to make a positive impact on their day too even if just for an hour or two during such a lonely time for us all. I truly got as much out of this programme as, hopefully, they did."

Andrea Sullivan, an International Executive at Bank of America, volunteered on Zoom in Your Room herself. She told us why this experience was so valuable for Bank of America employees:

"Supporting our older neighbours to get started on Zoom, so that they can continue to connect with others and join virtual social activities, is incredibly important, especially during these disconnected times. Volunteering with The Cares Family to help bridge the digital gap was a great experience. The older neighbour I spoke to was an absolute delight, we had a wonderful connection and laughed a lot, a good dose of caring medicine for us both during this period."

The 128 hours our corporate partners have given have enabled our teams to focus on other ways to bring communities together. We’ve created a ‘Community Callers’ initiative so that trained volunteers can help us check in with neighbours. Phone-A-Friend, which is part of our traditional Love Your Neighbour programme, matches older and younger neighbours for regular chats on the phone. #AloneTogether activity packs have been posted to thousands of neighbours’ doorsteps each month with daily creative distractions to pass the time. And we’ve collaborated with community partners to create resources for wider community use, such as this Digital Divide guide created by North London Cares with Ageing Better in Camden.

What’s next?

As the UK enters a new phase of the pandemic, we’ve redoubled our efforts to keep our communities connected. We’ve updated and re-branded Zoom In Your Room, and now we’re offering wider volunteering for our corporate partners, called What The Tech?

For lots of our neighbours, not having an email account has been a barrier to using Zoom, shopping online or creating accounts with GPs and pharmacies. So now, as well as supporting our neighbours to use Zoom, corporate volunteers who take part in What The Tech? will be able to support neighbours to set up and use an email account too – with the help of guides and training from our teams.

In lots of ways, digital technology can democratise and widen opportunities so that they’re more inclusive. From John O’ Groats to Land’s End, people can now enjoy the London Film Festival. Even people in the capital who might otherwise have been unable to leave their homes and go to the cinema can now enjoy the festival. But the pandemic has fast-tracked the leap to digital technology, and that rapid pace of change threatens to leave many feeling left behind in an already isolating time. That’s why we know that by harnessing corporate, volunteer and community power, we’ll be able to meet this problem head-on, bridging the digital divide across our communities.

To partner with us or volunteer on What the Tech? email our Director of Development ellenor.baron@thecaresfamily.org.uk.

Donate today

Thank you for considering a donation to The Cares Family. Your gift will help to tackle loneliness and build connection and community in a disconnected world. Our work is powered by people – so please chip in if you can.

The Cares Family is a UK registered company (10236615) and registered charity (no. 1180638). North London Cares is a UK registered company (07737818) and registered charity (1153137). South London Cares is a UK registered company (8757344) and registered charity (1157401). Manchester Cares is a UK registered company (10893107) and registered charity (1176902). Liverpool Cares is a UK registered company (11166325) and registered charity (no. 1177749). East London Cares is a UK registered company (11809555) and registered charity (no. 1186012).

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