Covid-19 and digital inclusion: Digital Brighton & Hove’s response so far

The Choir With No Name

Key numbers since lockdown

  • 24 tablets loaned out by Digital Brighton & Hove to support vulnerable people
  • 10 tablets provided by DevicesDotNow and distributed to residents to help them get online
  • 8 Zoom digital inclusion peer support sessions delivered
  • 40 virtual digital champions available
  • 194 remote 1-2-1 support sessions delivered
  • 13 digital inclusion webinars delivered
  • 1,093 page views on the Digital Brighton & Hove signposting website
  • 132 calls to Digital Brighton & Hove helpline for support from a Digital Champion
  • 22 community organisations matched with a tech volunteer to help them move their services online
  • 47 community organisations helped so they can continue to provide support to residents

When we embarked on a new stage of the Digital Brighton & Hove project last summer, little did we know that we would end up recruiting a new local project team to help deliver tablets to vulnerable people, be providing remote digital skills support for people via Zoom and supporting a growing local network of local organisations needing to rapidly shift their services online.

This new stage has been delivered by the partnership of Citizens Online, Brighton & Hove City CouncilCommunity Works and the Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST).

Building on the successful partnership work from the previous 3 years, the third phase of the Digital Brighton & Hove project was set up to focus primarily on supporting social sector organisations – i.e. their staff and volunteers rather than service users – to improve their digital skills.

This was at least the aim until Covid-19 hit all of our lives and disrupted the plan. But with disruption also comes opportunities and focus – and if ever there was a time to draw on the range of skills, experience and knowhow from our engaged local network, Covid-19 lockdown was it!

Laying down foundations before Covid-19: peer support, training and community-building

As witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the power of communities and networks is in being able to draw on trusted relationships, both at individual and organisational levels, to tackle common challenges together. The foundations we’ve put in place in Brighton & Hove over the past few years, and the relationships and mutual trust we’ve built over this period, have been vital in enabling us to quickly react to the pandemic.

The nine months prior to Covid-19 had already seen a number of new collaborations emerge through the network. Working in collaboration with both social and tech organisations like Community Works, CAST, Diversity & Ability, Economic Change and Clearleft, we delivered over a dozen digital training workshops and matched local organisations’ digital needs with local support.

Through these activities, we helped increase the digital capability and knowledge of 133 local organisations, from which 244 local staff and volunteers gained better digital skills and confidence. This active period of engagement prior to Covid-19 helped lay down some foundations for the local social sector to be in a position to react when the pandemic hit.

“Giving a background of conversations and discussion and moving our own thinking forward slowly had raised the baseline of general preparedness for what we then had to do when Covid-19 hit […] Our Senior Leadership team is more naturally digitally inclined and willing to embrace options like online training, partly because they have been exposed to a lengthy conversation about digital in part triggered by the Digital Brighton & Hove work”.

Jo Crease, CEO of Together Co

People need tablets!

During lockdown, our project’s focus shifted back immediately to supporting those vulnerable people most at risk of social isolation during lockdown. Digital Brighton & Hove coordinated the ‘digital workstream’ of the city council’s Covid-19 Vulnerable People Cell, while working closely with community partners and service users to understand emerging needs on the ground.

One of the barriers that needed addressing immediately was the lack of a device or internet connection for vulnerable people shielding or not able to afford tech. We were swamped with requests for access to a smartphone, tablet or laptop from both local service users and organisations.

We immediately applied for emergency funding to set up a Covid-19 tablet loan scheme for vulnerable people at risk of social isolation during the pandemic. We were successful in receiving funding from Good Things Foundation, DevicesDotNow and Sussex Community Foundation. We then set up a referral system from scratch using Google Forms and reached out to our partners from the One Digital Partnership to share challenges and potential solutions.

Between March and June, we delivered 34 tablets to service users who had been referred by a range of local community organisations and council services including Brighton Housing Trust, Choir With No Name, Voices in Exile, Clock Tower Sanctuary, Together Co, Impact Initiatives, the council’s Seniors Housing, Health and Adult Social Care and libraries services.

Realising that we did not have the capacity to scale this up at speed, we also helped other community organisations set up their own tablet scheme by applying for their own emergency funding.

“We are extremely grateful to […] Digital Brighton & Hove for their generous donation and for helping to get our members online during these challenging times. […] These donations for some of our members mean the world, as they will be able to re-join our choir family and stay connected with staff, volunteers and each other.”

Asta Sabaliauskaite, Digital Inclusion Manager for the Choir With No Name Brighton

Choir with No Name Brighton member Aldo, who received a tablet from Digital Brighton & Hove, has since got online, and is now regularly joining virtual rehearsals, said:

“Thank you from the bottom of my heart to everyone who’s helped do this for me, it means so much – it means the world.”

Adapting support to meet changing need

At Citizens Online, we’ve talked a lot about the lack of digital skills and confidence as one of the main barriers to getting online. As Rich Denyer-Bewick, our managing director, recently said in an inquiry hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Social Integration in response to tackling digital exclusion: “You can’t just throw technology at it…!”

During lockdown, we helped to bring together Digital Champions from different services to offer remote digital support to those lacking the digital skills or confidence to get online. We realised we’d need to retrain local Digital Champions, so we ran more than a dozen webinars and virtual peer support sessions on Zoom in collaboration with both local and national partners including AbilityNet, Diversity & Ability and Digital Unite.

As a result of this training, over 200 remote one-to-one sessions were delivered to vulnerable people during the lockdown period, mainly on the phone and Zoom. We also created new content on our Digital Brighton & Hove signposting website to support digital skills learning with practical advice for anyone keen to get online or improve their digital. Guidance offered includes step-by-step tech guides, access to free or cheap devices and a number of video digital support sessions. The site was updated weekly with new information disseminated to over 1,000 contacts through our weekly Covid-19 Newsletter. Most of the web pages saw their average monthly activity roughly double, and overall views per month for the site increased from 541 to 1,093. The Covid response page activity peaked in April but activity on the site as a whole remained high through May as well.

“The response in the period of Covid19 was really great. The simple web page with all the important contact and support options available to people was fantastic to be able to share. It made a big difference in the message we were able to send out to service users and their circle of support.”

David Matthews, Regional Manager at Grace Eyre Foundation

Embracing innovation and new collaborations

Covid-19 sparked renewed enthusiasm for ‘thinking outside the box’ and exploring new solutions to familiar problems. The sense of emergency was often matched by adrenaline-fueled Zoom calls, new Trello boards and Google Docs determined to turn talk to action. “If not now, then when?!” was a familiar reflection coming out of these conversations. And with funding bodies becoming more flexible with their bidding and reporting processes, there was a real opportunity to innovate:

  • Getting cheap Wi-Fi to vulnerable people in emergency accommodation
    • We’ve been working in collaboration with Jangala, Justlife and Diverse and Ability to find new and cheaper ways of bringing Wi-Fi to those at most risk of digital exclusion during the pandemic. The result is a targeted pilot which will ensure access to Wi-Fi, tablets and trusted digital support to vulnerable individuals in emergency accommodation.
  • Reusing donated old tech to help families on low income get online
    • There have been lots of well-meaning attempts to get donations of old devices but in our experience, circulating these without prior refurbishing and adequate setup to those that are digitally excluded can create more problems than it solves. So we’ve teamed up with Tech-TakeBack to help redistribute repurposed second-hand devices to families on low income to enable schooling and home working. The pilot will begin this summer.
  • Supporting community organisations through the local tech sector
    • We also worked in close collaboration with the Tech for Good Brighton community to ensure community organisations were able to find peer support through the help of over 40 local tech volunteers. During the Covid-19 lockdown period, over 20 one-to-one virtual matches were facilitated between local community organisations needing digital support and a further 47 community organisations were helped so they could continue to provide support to residents.

“Digital Brighton & Hove’s ability to distil tech information and solutions, plus connect organisations working with those who are digitally excluded, with local tech firms and other services has proved itself to be a valuable link to seeing those previously excluded coming online, especially during this challenging time”.

Simon Gale, CEO of Just Life

Keeping up the momentum

While digital inclusion was already an important issue before Covid-19, there’s no doubt that it has now become an essential one. With this in mind, the next phase of the project has been developed as part of the city’s Covid-19 Recovery Programme, supporting vulnerable people through digital inclusion activity.

So far we’ve secured new funding from Brighton & Hove City Council, the Sussex Community Foundation and the Higher Education Innovation Fund, to help us maintain and consolidate this work until Spring 2021. There are some immediate practical objectives we want to achieve:

  • We want to provide more devices to vulnerable people who are offline. We currently have a waiting list, so accessing further grants or donations will be important.
  • We want to provide more one-to-one remote digital skills support for new learners. Many Digital Champions don’t feel confident providing digital support remotely. It’s challenging to do and requires ongoing volunteer support and training.
  • We want to increase our capacity to share resources and guides out there in the community.
  • We want to keep up the momentum and share good practice through the growing network of organisations that have made digital inclusion in their service a priority.

Two new part-time roles have been created to support this work: a Community Digital Champion and a Project Coordinator, who will be joining the Digital Brighton & Hove team this summer to kickstart the recovery phase!

If you’d like to get involved in the next phase of the project, please email