Platform. The everyday portal for sharing knowledge and intelligence on sustainability across Greater Manchester.

Digital days and bridging the divide: Go ON Manchester


Even though a home internet connection is fast becoming a standard utility alongside water, gas and electricity 20% of UK adults do not have basic online skills, a figure that rises to 25% in Manchester⁠.

Although increasing amounts of our lives are conducted online, there is a critical lack of connectivity in Manchester and in an effort to address this 'digital divide' Manchester City Council are running a campaign, called ‘Go ON Manchester’, to improve digital literacy in the city.

First launched in October 2012, the scheme is being led by the Manchester Digital Development Agency (MDDA) and Manchester City Council, who are working in partnership with a range of local organisations, from businesses, housing associations and trade unions, to colleges, professional associations and third sector organisations.

The backbone of the scheme is a small army of ‘Digital Champions’, recruited through partnerships and public appeals, who provide drop-in sessions and informal one-to-one help for individuals and small businesses.  Digital Champions are not necessarily computer experts, they need only have basic computer skills, confidence using the internet and the enthusiasm and patience “to inspire, encourage and support people to use the Internet.”⁠  The help they provide is driven by users: what do people want or need to do online and what help do they need to achieve that?  With such a broad remit the scheme can help people do everything from setting up an email address and or Facebook account to paying bills online and marketing their business through social networks.

Online is also becoming the place where the public engages with government and local authorities, be it paying bills, reporting problems, requesting services or administering benefits.

And the benefits of getting online can be huge.  Digital skills improve lifetime earnings.  Small businesses that are online grow faster.  Shopping online saves households hundreds of pounds a year.  Online is also becoming the place where the public engages with government and local authorities, be it paying bills, reporting problems, requesting services or administering benefits.  When it works, this saves both time and money for all concerned.

It would be easy to dismiss Go ON’s Digital Champions as ‘big society’ PR.  But there is also sensitivity and care at the heart of the Digital Champions’ remit.  For people who are not knowledgeable of the internet and may even be fearful of it, being shown how to get online by someone they know and trust is potentially more effective than formal training sessions.  Digital Champions also allow users to shape the help they get, rather than that help being determined in advance by those in authority.

As well as working informally with family, friends and neighbours, Digital Champions have recently been deployed at a series of ‘Digital Days’ in northeast Manchester.  Based in libraries and community centres, these are essentially drop-in sessions in familiar locations where local people can seek help doing things online.  Given the high levels of deprivation in these areas, the Digital Days are an attempt to target support to those who need it most.  If successful the scheme will be rolled out in other parts of Manchester.

At the time of writing, uptake for the sessions had been initially slow but was growing.  With social media publicity inappropriate for their audience, Go ON Manchester have relied on flyers, booklets and even a promotional bus to raise awareness of the scheme, as well as word-of-mouth recommendations.  The slow pace of this ‘snowball’ publicity strategy combined with individual reluctance and apprehensiveness about the online world means that any measurable effects of the programme will only be felt over a longer period of time, perhaps longer than the month that has been allocated for the trial.

Behind its positivity, the Go ON Manchester scheme faces challenges in enhancing digital inclusion during a time of cuts.  There is no explicit funding for Go ON Manchester, only allocation of some staff time and the printing of campaign materials.  Neither is there funding to cover the overheads of community centres running Digital Days or to ensure that these locations are technically equipped to run them.  The internet connection at one centre is through a home hub, which was quickly overwhelmed on their first Digital Day.  Meanwhile some libraries around Manchester, which are already equipped and serving as important access points for people to get online, are closing.

And yet it is more important than ever that people have access to and confidence using online services.  Of the 25% of Manchester residents not online, half are in the lowest socio-economic group.  They are already losing out on vital savings and services due to digital exclusion and are set to lose out even more as benefit and job centre systems move online in the coming months and years.  Manchester City Council is also seeking to shift most of its customer service functions online, which could lead to considerable savings⁠ for the council and users, providing everyone is able to access them.

This shift towards online makes the efforts and impacts of Go ON Manchester more important than ever if the city is to avoid further excluding those who need its services most.⁠ 

On paper, the strength of Go ON Manchester is its awareness that, for those not online, the internet can be a scary prospect and that mobilising existing personal connections and trusting relationships can facilitate people getting online better than a top-down council programme.  The big question is whether this localised, user-driven, volunteer-delivered approach can address digital exclusion for those on the front-line of the cuts.  Only time will tell.


Main image: Laptop Orchestera at Wired NetFest by Adam Arroyo via Flickr