Interview with Emma Solomon, Digital Unite

NB: This is a copy of a piece I wrote for the Ofcom Intranet.

Digital Unite specialises in supporting older people to use digital technologies. It is perhaps best known as the organiser of Silver Surfers Day, a national day of action to encourage older people to start using computers and the internet.

2011 is the tenth anniversary of the campaign, and Emma Solomon (ES), Digital Unite’s Managing Director, took some time out from her busy schedule to tell Damian Radcliffe (DR) about the campaign and her work in promoting digital inclusion.

DR:
Silver Surfers Day (Friday 20 May) looks like it’s been given a bit of a makeover this year – what’s different and why?
 

ES:
The key difference is that we are hosting a week of activities – ‘Spring Online’ – which will culminate in Silver Surfers Day on the Friday. Silver Surfers Day has traditionally been a single day, but given that it’s the tenth anniversary we wanted to do something a bit different, without tampering with the general premise!

A single day is often too short a window for event holders who would like to hold events on other days too. Now they now can.  Additionally, we wanted to experiment with the term Silver Surfers Day. Not everyone likes, or wants to be associated with, this due to the implications with ageing.

Spring Online has no age implications whatsoever. This year people can run Spring Online events, Silver Surfers Day events or both!

DR:
The digital world must be very different now from when you started ten years ago. What are the biggest differences you’ve seen?

ES:
The biggest difference is reach and scale. When we ran our first events 10 years ago, we had 42 events.  At the end of this year, we’ll have run more than 2,000 events!

The other thing that’s changed is the general environment; digital literacy and digital skills are much more a part of everyday life, which has probably made it easier to attract event holders and participants.

When we started, the web was relatively new as a consumer experience and, whilst you had the novelty factor, you had to do a lot more work to engage people.  Now, of course, we don’t have to work quite so hard to engage people with the concept. the negative side of that is a slight media weariness with the agenda, so there are pros and cons to it being more the norm.

It’s also worth noting what hasn’t changed; in particular that engagement at a local level remains a practical and powerful way to reach people. You cannot run a national campaign centrally. You can co-ordinate, resource and cajole, but we are completely dependent on organisations like libraries, Age Concerns, UK Online Centres and local community groups to get bums on seats.

DR:
Will new tools and technology make a difference for your target group?

ES:
Yes. We’ve done some research on this where one of the questions we asked was about how people go online. 88% said via a PC connected to broadband at home. Only just over 2% are accessing via mobile devices and just 0.4% via tablets such as an iPad. I should say that this is a relatively small sample of 600 people, but you’ll see that the predominant form of access has shifted yet.

I think over the next five years that will change quite significantly.

We know that the growth in mobile internet is staggering, as is take up of devices such as tablets and e-readers. This will make bits of digital more accessible in a more diverse way over time. 

We work predominantly with older users. Our older users in five years’ time will have been younger users today. Their use of and access to  the internet is changing, so as they become older users – at work or in the process of leaving work – they will take those habits with them.

You are far more likely to see diversification in access with people who are already adopters. First time internet users are channeled through the PC broadband route because it is still the most prevalent access route for older people.

DR:
I’ve seen research which suggests that people who use tablets, smartphones etc. to access the web seldom have this as their only option. Rather, they need to be connected all the time.

ES:
Yes, those devices are being used as supplements aren’t they? But for many the Mothership is still your home based PC and broadband connection.

It’s also worth noting that for older people who may be accessing the web for the first time – via intermediaries in the community – access routes are determined by the connectivity and kit that those communities have. 

Most of those environments are using older technology because that is what has been put in, and that’s what they can afford. So people can’t go into a library and use an iPad for their first time online. The community will be slightly behind the front of the adoption curve, but I suppose that’s always been the case.

DR:
Wouldn’t it be great to go into your library and pick up an iPad!

ES:
Yeah – wouldn’t it!

DR:
Spring Online and SSD are what you’re best known for, but Digital Unite does lots more. Can you summarise a few of your other strands of work?

ES:
Our Tutor Network is a big part of what we do. We recruit and support tutors all over the UK who provide 1-1 home visits to learners, often older learners, in their own home. It’s a paid for service, not funded for the learner or tutor, but it remains popular and continues to grow.

The second major part of our work is community learning, work we set up in environments such as sheltered housing.  We’ve just finished a very big project funded by DWP called ‘Get Digital’ where we set up kit and connectivity. We delivered training to 196 sheltered housing schemes a year, and enabled another 500+ to self serve by using resources we made available for them online.

Digital Unite continues to work in sheltered housing and our next development for that group is Digital Champion training. This summer we are going to test a syllabus which supports staff and other intermediaries, so they can cascade skills to residents.

We want to encourage social landlords to invest in their staff to champion the digital cause by giving them digital skills, because their staff often don’t have these skills. It will be interesting to see how that evolves; I am very excited about it!

To find out more about Digital Unite’s work – including how you can get involved – visit: http://digitalunite.com/

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