Bridging the digital divide
There is a growing recognition among health and community service workers that lack of IT access is the new marker of social disadvantage. In response, significant effort is being expended to bridge the digital divide between people who have ready access to computers and a working knowledge of how to use them, and those who don’t.
Increasingly, local governments are turning to digital inclusion projects as the answer. This new worldwide phenomenon can be found as far afield as Houston in the US and Sabah in Malaysia, and as close as Collingwood in the inner city of Melbourne.
The Carlton Digital Inclusion Project, auspiced by the Church of All Nations, is a partnership between the Church and the University of Melbourne, the City of Melbourne, Department of Human Services, Carlton Neighbourhood Learning Centre and the Drummond Street Services.
“For so many of us computers are an essential part of everyday life,” says Amy Lees, Opportunities for Carlton Project Manager at the City of Melbourne. “It’s how you get a job, how you manage your finances, how you interact with your friends and family.
“If you don’t have access to the internet or even understand how a computer works, you are increasingly being excluded from mainstream society and your chances of maximising educational, employment and social opportunities further curtailed.”
The Carlton Digital Inclusion Project has been developed in response to ABS census data and anecdotal understanding of a community need, particularly in the Carlton housing estates, where access to computers is extremely limited.
The project received state government funding of $125,000 to support an 18-months pilot to be delivered from January 2011 to June 2012. The University of Melbourne’s Leadership, Involvement and Volunteer Experience (LIVE) unit has been allocated $5000 to set up a student volunteering service to support the project.
The funding will support the establishment of a workshop at the Carlton housing estate where, through an accredited training program, ex-government and University computers will be refurbished for on-selling to residents for a nominal purchase price of $50. Residents will also be able to access training through the local providers involved in the project, and support from University of Melbourne student volunteers. A community website will provide a digital hub for the project, and the community.
“Access to a computer is not just putting a computer into people’s homes,” says Ms Lees. Ali Kassem, co-ordinator of the LIVE Unit’s Student Volunteer Resource Service, agrees.
In a fortunate stroke of serendipity, Mr Kassem had already been working with a group of international students who had come to him for advice on how to volunteer their expertise with ICT when Ms Lees approached him about the Carlton Digital Inclusion Project.
“The students wanted to offer computer maintenance, programming and general IT troubleshooting,” says Mr Kassem. “But I thought there was an opportunity to do something bigger.”
The result has been the establishment of a new student-led organisation the students have called ‘inKind IT’.
With the support of the LIVE Unit, which has provided mentoring and office space, inKind IT will recruit students from across all disciplines of the University to volunteer on the Carlton Digital Inclusion Project, contributing their knowledge and skills to train residents in the use of computers, internet and email, and provide maintenance and repair.
“As with all good partnerships,” says Jerry de la Harpe, Executive Director of the University of Melbourne’s Knowledge Partnerships Office, “everyone will benefit and learn from this important Opportunities for Carlton initiative. And certainly, the outcome is one that none of the contributing organisations could have done alone.”