Voice of Leeds Summit: Tackling how to digitally connect the city

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High profile speakers came together at the YEP’s office today (Thursday) to tackle the digital divide in Leeds and suggest ways the city could be better connected.

The latest YEP Voice of Leeds Summit 2015 - organised in partnership with the Leeds Community Foundation - highlighted a variety of obstacles facing the city’s digitally isolated residents.

A key issue was people’s perception of the internet - that some felt the digital world was ‘beyond them’, that it was anti-social or had limited functions.

John Popham, a digital ‘storyteller’, said the internet “can be a gateway to the world - connecting people in different ways” but a lot of people were not engaged.

He said: “People think the internet is for a particular purpose - until you say it has infinite possibilities.”

Melody Walker, of G-Tech Youth Code, which teaches computing skills to youngsters, said changing perceptions also had a role in encouraging digital learning and career choices.

Noting most companies’ IT departments are male, she added: “Breaking through this stereotype is key to getting more girls and under-represented groups engaged with technology.”

The summit heard of the need to make the internet more relevant to individual needs, to engage the city’s ‘offline’ residents.

Victoria Betton, programme director of mHealthHabitat, which promotes digital technology within the health service, mentioned a project which had great success involving patients on a mental health ward who had been given digital tablets and shown how to find content on their particular interests.

Dr Helen Thornham, University of Leeds research fellow, said: “It’s about making it meaningful for people. That means we have to take a more holistic approach - not just deliver technology and hope. We have to think beyond that.”

Ed Carlisle, of charity Together for Peace, said the digital world was great at bringing like-minded people together and cited online work in south Leeds which has linked heritage groups together.

“They find digital really empowering. It gives them a ‘why’ - because they all want to reminisce,” he said.

Melody added inter-generational work had proved successful in improving understanding among the elderly.

“We had younger people teach older people how to use emails. It was more than about accessing technology - it was about interacting with other generations. Everyone loved it.”

The summit heard workforces in Leeds could be ‘digital champions’ and a key influence in helping the city’s digitally isolated residents get online.

Dylan Roberts, chief information officer at Leeds City Council, said boosting the digital skills of organisations’ staff could ultimately get more people to engage with technology and help plug Leeds’ digital divide.

He said: “I think we need to take more responsibility for the digital gap within organisations. So our workforce could be the evangelists. If someone is going out to visit someone and they are tech-savvy or friendly, even in a very basic way, part of their role could be to try and enrol people to that. That’s an area where we could affect change. In this day and age, it’s part of your job.”

Digital storyteller John Popham said staff are the ‘gatekeepers’ to the digital world - a factor Sue Jennings, community development manager at Federated Housing Association said her organisation has already embraced. But she stressed that to engage the digitally-isolated, technology has to be user-friendly and she finds tools such as Universal Job Match can cause stress to new users, delaying their online confidence. Sue added that for her, the health service was vitally important in addressing digital deprivation - with GP surgeries a key way of connecting people.

Speaking after the summit, chairwoman Pip Goff, programmes manager of Leeds Community Foundation, said: “It was great to hear people with such different perspectives: from front line workers to business to senior decision makers sharing their enthusiasm about the potential of digital technology to transform our city. Concerns were voiced about safety and some people being left behind but a real optimism about how resourceful people can be, especially if we collaborate and share the good stuff.”