Calling on Leeds Tech Angels to help bridge digital divide and donate unused IT equipment to city's disadvantaged youngsters

An appeal has been launched to find “Tech Angels” across Leeds who can help bridge the digital divide that has been exposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

By Emma Ryan
Saturday, 5th December 2020, 6:00 am

It is asking businesses and employers in Leeds to donate unused laptops and tech equipment to young people across the city who are not lucky enough to have any at home that they can use to learn.

The Yorkshire Evening Post backed campaign to find ‘Leeds Tech Angels’, is being led by a recently established group, Digital Access West Yorkshire, with funding from Leeds Community Foundation and support from Ahead Partnership, Leeds City Council and Zero Waste Leeds.

Ben McKenna leads the movement and was motivated to bridge the gap after learning that during the first lockdown, half of the children in his daughter’s class didn’t have access to a computer or laptop so they could do school work at home.

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Ben McKenna prepares donated kit before it can be handed out to families in need.

There are also reports of a deputy head in West Yorkshire who had 90 laptops on order from the Department for Education for his school - but was sent just 15. It then left to him to choose who on his list would get one and who wouldn’t.

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Statistics from St Theresa’s Catholic Primary School at Crossgates shows that in years one to six, 50 percent of children on the register do not have access to a PC or laptop and for those that do, 33 per cent have to share it with other family members.

Research by the Sutton Trust, which campaigns for equal educational opportunities for children and young people, says 15 percent of teachers reported more than a third of their students did not have adequate access to an electronic device so they could learn at home. In addition to that, just 23 per cent of pupils were taking part in lessons online during lockdown. That figure fell to 16 per cent for working class children.

Leeds Tech Angels.

This statistic resonated with Mr McKenna, chief executive of social enterprise Solidaritech, a community interest company helping refugees and asylum seekers get access to technology. He is also a founder of Digital Access West Yorkshire, a group of tech-minded volunteers working with schools across the whole of West Yorkshire to get equipment to people that need it.

He told the Yorkshire Evening Post: “Knowing what I know about IT, I know it would be dangerous to just log into someone’s computer, it is a recipe for disaster so I said if we get more machines we can clean and donate them.”

There are various drop off points around the city and then tech experts and volunteers, on behalf of the Tech Angels project, wipe data and make equipment safe to be passed on.

Items they require include laptops, tablets, smartphones, chargers, keyboards, wireless dongles and laptop bags. There are other ways to help such as donations to cover battery costs which are around £15 or funding a young person to get three months worth of 4g data and a dongle for £170.

Children have been forced to learn at home but struggle without access to equipment.

Mr McKenna says as a youngster, having access to computers without doubt helped him to shape his own future career.

He said: “I grew up in a council flat in the central part of London, single parent family and did not get on well with school and it did not get on well with me. One of the things that meant that I could have a career was my mum scrimped and saved and worked two jobs to make sure I had access to IT equipment and computers. Every job that I have ever had since then has been on my ability to use computers.

“In terms of self improvement there are few greater tools. We are the first generation to have access to the entire world’s resource of knowledge at our fingertips. If you give people access to information, tools to do whatever they need, you can achieve great things with technology - YouTube tutorials, how to fix things, how to build things it really is an amazing amount of information out there.

“The digital divide has been exacerbated by this pandemic. You can’t campaign for everyone to do everything on-line and give them no measures. We are hearing of children doing homework on a smartphone or having to wait until 10pm to use a laptop because their parents use it for work. The government should have sorted it out. We can make a dent and mitigate it but it will take a lot more to do that.”

Ben McKenna, who is leading Leeds Tech Angels with donated kit at the Old Fire Station in Gipton which is a drop off point.

Business donation

Zandra Moore is the CEO and Co-Founder of Panintelligence, an analytics company, based in Yeadon. She heard about Leeds Tech Angels via twitter and donated some old laptops that had been used for staff training and were “gathering dust” in a cupboard.

She said: “I checked they were working and had cables and they did the rest. It was really easy and simple and I didn’t have to do a lot to give them to them.

“The stories that we were hearing were there were homes with one mobile device, big families with children trying to download homework and information on a mobile. The mum was trying to share a phone around her children so they could at least try and do the work. It was just crazy”.

Ms Moore said the lockdown and home-learning has led to a tipping point for education, especially as the gaps that were already there in learning will have been widened.

She added: “It forced schools to embrace on-line learning, there are benefits for the schools and kids that have access to technology but it will create a gap between those that can and those that can’t.

“Lockdown created a real digital divide between young people that were struggling at school and they will have fallen further behind.

“What do we do about this? We employ people, that is not huge, but we had seven laptops sat in a cupboard gathering dust. There are lots of companies that have redundant equipment sitting in tech cupboards but part of the reason why no one throws it out is they think it might be used but they don’t know that they can re-purpose them.

“I didn’t know how easy it was until I did it. Most homes have a phone or an Ipad spare and if somebody said you can give that to a young person to give access to education, people would throw their stuff at them. It is such a good cause.”

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