The Leeds-based community interest company Get Technology Together is one independent organisation which seeks to address the lack of opportunity to learn and experiment with practical technology applications across a range of areas in the city. Founded as a legacy of the Get IT Together partnership project between Leeds City Council, British Telecom and Citizens Online which ran from 2012-2015, it today strives ‘to help individuals and organisations alike gain skills and confidence with technology and promote the beneficial opportunities that investment in people and tech can bring’.
Through the formation of city-wide local partnerships, GTT set up digital access points across several communities supported by both paid tutors and volunteers: “These are friendly, welcoming spaces where people can drop in and get casual, supported access to the internet as well as attend bespoke courses to address specific needs”, says Vic. One recent success was the result of helping an elderly lady learn how to get the most out of Google Maps; she went on to plan a complicated journey using public transport to independently visit her son in the south of the country. A previous alternative may have been to slowly and laboriously piece together a route, referring to a number of transport providers and juggling several sets of information. While this action becomes almost instantaneous with a tool as comprehensive and user-friendly as Google Maps, for the uninitiated it presents itself as a daunting step into the technological unknown.
Ironically, the benefits felt by those exposed to the initiative are not just restricted to recipients of training and skills acquisition. One past volunteer was a university lecturer in computer science who sought asylum from an oppressive regime overseas; she went on to secure a paid teaching job through the work experience gained by helping out at GTT. It should, therefore, be considered that investing collectively - from both a financial and social point of view - in raising our level of digital education on a national level presents life-changing opportunities for those actually imparting knowledge and training, not just the recipients of it.
The organisation now has in excess of 200 registered students, some of whom have simply gained invaluable confidence and skills with their phone, tablet or computer and others who are now moving on to further training and indeed employment opportunities. GTT also plays a role in areas beyond just general proficiency; a lack of available money is often a factor in limited access to technology and subsequent digital exclusion, which Vic is always conscious of. “We’ve helped people, businesses and community groups develop an online presence and even assisted with computer networks and hardware refurbishment. Our lab project recycles donated technology and brings it back into use through local charity shop distribution.” With well-documented mountains of waste electronics a growing problem, making the most of devices that may not be the most up-to-date but still fully functioning could prove to be hugely important to widening the general digital access pool to those for whom money is indeed an inhibitor to simply getting online.
If the pace of technological advancement continues unabated, the role of collectives promoting digital inclusion will become all the more crucial later down the line, especially with the growing power and influence of algorithms and automation. “We’re very interested in exploring the potential of artificial intelligence and how it will affect people on an individual level, and how automated technology integrates into our lives in future is a hot topic for discussion, especially the ethics of how it is used.”
The existence of localised communities of inhabitants with limited access to the internet or basic online know-how presents one problem to cities like Leeds, but when when artificial intelligence ingrains itself deeper into our daily lives there may be an even more profound risk that digital exclusion evolves into one which is even more of a problematic social barrier. As a result, this is something which people like Vic are keen to stay ahead of the curve on, and even play a role in shaping: “Our Lab project is already starting to develop ideas for new projects in this regard for the years to come, and generate interest in them across our students.”
Perhaps in a future world the old lady who goes to visit her son benefits from her journey being automatically planned and booked by a personal digital assistant. It might add ingredients for her favourite dinner to her son’s shopping list to remind him when he’s next at the supermarket, as well as schedule a central heating boost from Friday to Sunday, just to make it that little bit more comfortable. Whether or not technology and AI will increasingly affect our daily lives at some point in the future is perhaps a moot point, but ensuring everyone can comfortably interact with the right devices, programmes and interfaces and enjoy its advantages is something we should look to avoid letting slip through the net.
What is profoundly clear to see is that while it’s a minority of individuals in specific areas of Leeds that directly benefit from digital inclusion initiatives, the whole city will ultimately benefit from a comprehensive long term programme seeking to give everyone the same opportunities - and that, intrinsically, includes those of us with the fortunate privilege of being able to exist in and around the digital space, both personally and professionally.
*Article originally produced for Leeds Digital Festival
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