A1 Community Works: Turning Richmondshire digital

16 Feb 2015

A1 Community Works Limited is a local community organisation dedicated to turning Richmondshire into a digital region. In the last four years, they've helped more than 300 people get online or develop their digital skills.

Centre Manager Tanya Cook is passionate about the difference technology can make to people in rural areas, creating connections where poor transport links, low employment opportunities and an ageing population can create isolation.

She says: "The most important thing for anyone operating in a rural area is outreach. You simply can't wait for people to come through your doors because it's such a dispersed and diverse audience group. You won't get natural footfall, and people often can't or can't afford to travel. That means you have to! Obviously that has challenges in terms of managing staff and volunteers, travel expenses and so much more, but unless you can afford the taxi fares or a minibus to bring people to you, you have to go out and find them in the places they congregate and feel comfortable. And that means both planning and partnerships are crucial.

"The fact is that one of the very real challenges we face in rural areas is broadband connectivity. There's no point setting up an outreach session somewhere popular - even if they have free wifi - if when you get two people onto it the whole thing collapses. You will do more damage if people have an unsuccessful experience online than if they never tried it at all. If it isn't meaningful it will just prove to them that technology isn't their thing. You have to go out and test your venues and your tech solutions, and invest in mobile MiFi or dongles.

"For instance, we go out to a local Wetherspoons pub which is a really popular venue, but where we can only get 5-6 people on their wifi at a time. We know we can't accommodate any more so we don't over-push or over-advertise. Basically you can either start with a great venue to capture people, and then solve the inevitable connection issues, or you can find great connectivity somewhere - like a Barclays Bank for example - and work out how you can approach them and use it to create an outreach session.

"Partners are so important, because it's working through trusted intermediaries that has always got us our best results. We've done things like door drops to thousands of houses, but got literally no new interest. Yet if we turn up somewhere like a community group or a care home and give a presentation - and then chat to people afterwards - we've got them hooked. So much of our work is about trust and personal connection, and you simply can't beat a face-to-face conversation.

"Local media also works, so if you can afford an advert in a parish newsletter or your Friday local, it's well worth it. Don't bother with regional press - people won't take action even if they've seen your ad in the big paper. If they see it locally, they will respond.

"Care homes and disability groups are great local partners to approach, and technology can make a huge difference to these audiences. We've now got a great group of learners with learning difficulties who come in every week from a local Disability charity. They do amazing work - and we're working with them on a computer refurbishment project where they restore and then donate or sell refurbished computers. In fact we've just got a new batch of PCs from a Housing Association in Harrogate - also great partners - who have just upgraded their equipment.

"It's also important to have good working relationships with your local JCP offices. Low levels of employment are a real issue in rural areas, and many people can't afford to travel to find work. Improving skills creates more opportunities for people. Again, connectivity can be an issue here, because government rules mean you often can't use JCP broadband, and in smaller towns there simply won't be the space for them to host outreach sessions in the first place. The good news is that they can send clients to you or to a nearby session, and ensure their attendance. You just need to get to the right person - the Digital Champion or the person who deals with skills conditionality. It's their job to help people plug digital skills gaps, and they'd love your help to do it!

"Other top tips for rural areas include approaching farmers or farming groups, who are increasingly being urged to talk to government online. As rural populations often include lots of older people and associated health issues, GPs are also great places to put up posters, and even run sessions if they have a spare treatment room. If you can get a stall or find a venue in market towns on market days, you'll be surprised how many people stop to talk to you and find out more. I'd also recommend posters in your local vets! People often live in the countryside because they love and keep animals, and it's amazing the networks and connections you can make through doggy people. Give it a go!

"There's no doubt that digital skills support is vital in rural areas, for all sorts of audience groups. But there's also no doubt that delivery IS challenging. My final tip would be to keep in touch with and work with other UK online centres in nearby towns and villages. Together, you'll find you can cover more ground and do more for more people."