COVID-19 has exposed a digital divide and the effects of digital exclusion on low-income communities such as Wandsworth. Residents are feeling isolated and unable to communicate. Many cannot readily access government resources which are delivered through digital media. With schools closed and pupils having to study at home, the inability of our poorest students to access technology (PC and the internet at home or in libraries) means they are unable to utilise the wealth of educational resources made available by schools. Being isolated from their school community adversely impacts the mental wellbeing of students and will continue to widen the educational divide between low-income families and the rest of the community.
Together, Wandsworth Council and Battersea Power Station launched the Power to Connect initiative. With a two-pronged approach, the project tackles digital poverty through data vouchers and laptops. The first was for Battersea Power Station Foundation to make a donation towards £10 data top-up vouchers for families on Pay As You Go systems on their mobile phones. The donation was made to the Council’s school meal voucher app as we identified most of the families struggling with access to data were also recipients of free school meals.
The second approach has been the campaign to encourage donations of old, working laptops and tablets. Launched on 19th April 2020, Power to Connect has collected over 500 devices from local members of the community, refurbished them as Google Chromebooks and donated them to 60 local schools. Schools identify who the vulnerable families are who would benefit most from a laptop, and provide the devices for the families to keep, to support homeschooling.
Local volunteers are recruited via Social Media and through local community partners. Volunteers have been sought to provide IT expertise in repurposing the donated computers at a Community Centre in Nine Elms, we now have a core team of committed IT Volunteers who support regularly. Logistics Volunteers help with cleaning, packing up and checking devices ahead of delivery. Our Transport Volunteers deliver and collect devices from the donors from across London, and deliver updated devices to schools.
As of August 2020 Power to Connect is a registered Community Interest Company and we plan to continue collecting old, unwanted devices from the local community, and forming partnerships with businesses, who can pledge to donate their devices to Power to Connect when they update their laptops and desktops for employees. Although we have achieved a lot already, we know we have a long way to go to meet the need for devices. With 6,000 families in Wandsworth currently eligible for free school meals and school preparing for local lockdowns and bubbles of pupils having to potentially self-isolate, the need for Power to Connect to continue is clear. For this, we need your support!