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“Embedded outreach” key to digital inclusion, conference hears

Digital inclusion projects must work with community and voluntary sector bodies if the UK is to ensure people with disabilities engage with the digital world, a national conference has heard.

The call was made by Jude Palmer, managing director of Digital Outreach, a social enterprise formed in 2007 by three organisations – Community Service Volunteers, Age UK and CEL Group – to run outreach work for the UK’s digital TV switchover.

Research at the time from lead TV switchover body Digital UK found there was a group of about 20% of the population who would not naturally engage with a major mainstream publicity campaign, Palmer told delegates at November’s digital inclusion conference hosted by non-profit Tinder Foundation.

These included older people, people with a disability and those for whom English is not their first language, all of whom can be socially isolated, she said.

“A lot of people found the switchover daunting, because TV for a lot of people is their main connection out into society”, Palmer said. “They were putting their head in the sand, saying ‘it’s technical, it’s not for me, why do I need to change? I’m perfectly OK as I am’. So a lot of this resonates with why people have not got online yet.”

The key to developing a successful strategy to reaching people in these groups was to work with and through voluntary and community groups who are already interacting with and trusted by them, she said.

Palmer said the nature of “embedded outreach” was “about people hearing messages from the person they see every week, every day: finding that one person and that one organisation that they do trust and interact with.

“We often describe it as ‘knitting’ – we were able to knit organisations together so you can cut across geographical barriers, social groups. You need to ask – how can you develop relationships with local voluntary and community groups?”

Once the right groups have been found, it is important for digital inclusion groups to strike the right balance between passing them consistent materials to fit their own messages, and allowing the trusted intermediaries to remain in control, she said.

“It is about making sure you work consistently with every organisation so key messaging is cascaded down, and people are signposted consistently for where they can get further help.

But at the same time once you hand over the framework, [you must] leave it to the organisation to deliver that. What we find with embedded outreach is there needs to be an investment from those organisations as well, and that is a really big ask.”

In the course of its work, Digital Outreach was asked to run a trial project in the North West of England to see how its embedded outreach model for digital TV might work for broader digital inclusion, and the results strongly supported the concept, Palmer said.

Overall, research found that some 77% of people reacted positively to online training if it was led by someone they knew, compared with only 17% reacting positively to a session led by someone they did not know.