During the COVID-19 lockdowns, with libraries and public Wi-Fi unavailable, many residents lost access to the internet, and were unable to afford the devices or data they needed to get online. So, in the summer of 2020, using a Stockport Local Fund grant we set up Stockport’s DigiKnow Device Lending Library, with free to borrow devices and data, and remote support to get online.
1) Demand was even higher than we’d expected.
Take-up of the devices was immediate and quickly outstripped the number of devices initially bought. But we were able to grow the pool of devices and data with help from Devices Dot Now, Connect 2020, Department for Education, Good Things Foundation, Lloyds Banking Group, O2, Hubbub and Connecting Families. We also received additional funding from Stockport Council and GMCA. ‘Devices’ includes both user devices such as tablets and laptops, and data devices, such as routers and MiFi sims. The DigiKnow Device lending Library currently has 302 devices out on loan. This breaks down to 110 Laptops, 84 Tablets, 83 Dongles and 25 Smartphones.
From July 2020 to July 2021 there have been a total of 2,200 loans (calculated as 1 month per loan) supporting 326 households across Stockport. As lockdown restrictions started to relax in March 2021, we noticed that we were not receiving as many referrals for devices. Schools and colleges had reopened which reduced the demand for devices for educational reasons at home. By the middle of April, most public buildings had reopened which allowed people to access an internet connection like they did prior to COVID-19.
Our waiting list was at its peak in the third lockdown, but once schools and libraries re-opened, we have been on top of the demand for devices and feel that the number of devices we now have in stock seems about right. Data is an ongoing issue, however we hope that the new National Databank recently launched by Virgin Media O2 and Good Things Foundation to tackle data poverty will help with this. We are one of the community organisations piloting this scheme and we will be writing more about this in a future blog.
2) Patterns in the duration and location of loans
35.56% of devices are returned to us within 3 months, however, these are mainly tablets and dongles. We have noticed that laptops tend to be borrowed for longer times. This is because it is mainly families with school-aged children that have received a laptop and therefore, they required it for a longer period. 78.05% of all devices that have been loaned for 12 months are laptops.
Loans have been made across Stockport, but clusters have occurred where we have greater referral contacts or word of the library has spread by mouth:
- 13.19% of devices, have gone to 43 households in Offerton. This is largely to do with the relationships we have built with members of the community and working with Strathclyde House to support their clients
- Brinnington received 10.74%, loaned to 35 households. Working with partners such as Stockport Homes, Motivate and Ingeus, we have been able to identify people in Brinnington who needed support to get online
- Woodley received 10.43%, with loans to 34 households. Being based in Woodley has meant that we have been able to support a greater number of people in this area as people see what we are doing in the community and reach out to us. We have had many self-referrals from Woodley
- Central Stockport received 8.9%, a total of 29 households
- Bredbury received 7.98%, a total of 26 households
- Reddish received 7.36%, a total of 24 households
As we move forward we hope to promote it more widely and reach more people. The more people hear about the library, the more word spreads and we can help more people in need.
3) The need for help getting online has changed
There has also been a shift in the type of need for the internet, which can be shown by a shift in the demographics of the people we are supporting with digital skills. Pre-pandemic they were predominantly older, retired users being supported with social isolation needs. As the lockdowns continued, the people looking for support were increasingly families with home schooling needs and people who needed to get online to seek employment or claim benefits.
4) The logistics are time intensive
Before a device is delivered to a household, we always have a conversation with the person receiving the device to build a relationship with the borrower. Most of our referrals are through support organisations, such as Stockport Homes, who identify a person in need. Once we have received a referral and have read why they think a person should receive a device, we introduce ourselves to the borrower and ask them why they need a device.
Sometimes we will see if there is any other way that they can be supported before coming to the lending library. For example, if a person is on Universal credit and is actively looking for a job, they can apply for the Flexible Support Fund from the Job Centre that will allow them to purchase their own device. We also talk about affordable internet offers that are provided by companies like Virgin Media, Talk Talk and Vodaphone. If the person is not applicable for any of the low-income schemes, we then organise a device to be delivered to them.
On the day of the delivery, we call to make sure that the person is going to be at their property. We have had some cases where they have not answered our calls in the morning and therefore have not had a device dropped off. The reason we now have this procedure in place is that sometimes we would organise a delivery during the initial phone call, and we would turn up to an empty property.
When we have received a device back, it must be quarantined before we can start the reset process. This involves keeping the devices in a closed container for at least 36 hours before cleaning down the device and restoring it to factory settings, ensuring that all personal data has been removed before it goes back into the library supply.
While devices are out on loan, we keep in contact with the person borrowing the device to make sure that everything is working ok and that their needs are being met. We aim to be in contact with the borrower once a fortnight. They are also given paperwork with our contact numbers in case there are any problems during the loan agreement. We also see if there is any digital skills support, we can offer a borrower. This could be attending our computer classes (online or in person) or by having a Digital Champion paired up with them who will arrange a call to see how they can help.
Inevitably there has been some damage and loss but the vast majority of devices are returned, and in good condition. Out of 302 devices that have been allocated by the lending library, some multiple times, only 16 have been lost. We have been able to repair damaged devices by teaming up with Community Computers. They have been crucial to making sure that the library has devices available when they are needed. As many of our devices are the same model, some damaged devices have been used for spare parts and this has helped device returns to the library.
5) It’s incredibly rewarding!
Overall, the device lending library has been a great success and helped many people throughout the national lockdown. People who were shielding were stuck in their own homes and some without access to technology couldn’t support themselves and relied on family and neighbours to help them with the essential needs. Without devices they couldn’t order their shopping or medication online, communicate with friends and family online, look for employment, keep up with education, pay their bills, receive their benefits, check their mobile banking, apply for housing – the list continues.
The most rewarding part of this project is knowing that you are helping those in need. Seeing how much it means to them and how it is going to help them get back on track. Some of our benefactors are jobseekers and need a device to help with their employment. It is brilliant that some can return the devices as they have been successful in their searches and have been able to purchase their own device.
It’s the feedback we’ve had from our borrowers that really makes it all feel worthwhile:
I think this is a brilliant service for those that do not have computers. It has been a real-life saver in helping my daughter stay on track with her work. She wouldn’t have been able to keep up with her schoolwork if it wasn’t for the laptop especially with the introduction of online classess.
Having a connection during lockdown has allowed me start my own business. It has allowed me to keep everything going and store all my files in one place.
Staying at home without wi-fi would have been terrible. Me and my baby would not have been able to learn. With the amount we need the internet, we are desperate for a device and more data.
I cannot thank you enough. After spending so long at home without a connection, I was worried that my children would not be able to keep up with their schoolwork and miss out.
Having a service like the Lending Library is really useful. They have been able to support me by letting me borrow a laptop which helped me realize that I would like to buy one for myself. I also have a mobile phone from them and I am looking to buy my own one too.
As life starts to get back to how it used to be, many people will restart their old routines and continue the way they used to before the pandemic. Digital inclusion matters now more than ever because the past year has shown us how crucial it is to have a connection and to know how to use it safely. Without an affordable solution, many people will be left behind and may become stranded needing help.
If you know someone who needs help getting online for the first time, call the DigiKnow Helpline on 07537 127095 to find out more about free to borrow devices and data, free telephone support from community Digital Champions and group classes in Stockport.
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