Wireless Poplar – aiming to get the majority of Poplar residents digitally engaged by 2021

Poplar HARCA blog about their realised ambition of getting all residents connected to a fast broadband and enjoying access to online services.

Who would have thought that what sounds to be a shot in the dark in 2016 would find light during a pandemic? Yes, Poplar HARCA likes to dream and dream BIG! It wanted all Poplar residents connected to a fast broadband and enjoying access to online services. The ambition was embedded in its 5-year Strategic Plan (2016-2021). But to realise this ambition, we have relied on the support of our long-term close partner LBTH. Unfortunately, after a series of meetings and promising starts, plans have to be shelved pending resolution of some legal barriers. The plan had to be shelved.

Meanwhile, we continued running digital inclusion projects at our community centres. Working with the Good Things Foundation, we continued to provide basic digital skills training to at least 100 local people a year from three of our community centres, registered and supported by Good Things Foundation as part of the Online Centres Network. At the back of this 10-year experience of digital engagement, we won a small grant from Clarion Futures. The grant enabled us to recruit 20 Digital Champions who were trained and introduced to online resources that honed their own IT training skills. The Digital Champions delivered sessions and provided one-to-one support to a total of 300 jobseekers over the course of one year. It was a very valuable support to people who were struggling to climb the first few steps of the employment ladder.

Of the 20 Digital Champions, seven got jobs, three have moved on to do other volunteering tasks within Poplar HARCA, and others went on to take up training in other areas of expertise and two have recently re-joined as volunteers for the Power Up project.

The substantial funding for our Digital Skills for Work via Power Up came a few months after we have completed the Digital Champions Scheme. It was very timely because it meant we can sustain the momentum that we have created in trying to get closer to our aim of embedding digital into all services especially the employment & training programme. Through the grant, we have set out to improve the digital skills of both the unemployed and under-employed local residents to help them get into jobs and/or move to better paying, more secure jobs. We hope to provide employment support to 400 Digital Skills Trainees and get 150 of them into employment and 60 into volunteering after 18 months from November 2019.

But unexpectedly in 2020, we saw the arrival of Covid-19 and it completely changed the way we would deliver the project. Plans to hold a big launch to let as many people as possible to know about the offer and its intended benefits have been aborted. The national lockdown in March meant a move to online provision as we closed all our community centres and other training venues. The need for a device, a good broadband connection and the skills to navigate the internet became apparent for most people, including the elderly, home-schooling children and those forced to work from home. Thanks to Power Up, we were already well-placed to redirect some of our funding to loan out 30 tablets to vulnerable residents who we have expressed fears of isolation and being cut off from the wider world due to the pandemic.

Not long after we have distributed the tablets, requests for laptops and connections have poured in from various quarters including some local schools. This has prompted PH and a local educational trust partner (LETTA Trust) to revisit the shelved plan for a “wireless Tower Hamlets”. This and other succeeding meetings and networking efforts developed into what was to become the Inclusive Broadband, Connected Communities partnership scheme led by Poplar HARCA. It was launched in June 2020 marking the distribution of a Digital Package (a chromebook, free 1-year broadband connection and digital skills training to those who need them). The project aims to gradually reach as many as 10,000 families (starting from those with children on Free School Meals but later would also include other vulnerable groups).

“The partnership set up this digital inclusion project to provide eligible families with a great internet connection, a device and training, all for free. This is a long term solution to tackle the digital divide and minimise the impact of the pandemic on educational achievement.” Jo Franklin, CEO, LETTA Trust.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is having the most profound impact on the most disadvantaged in our community. Improving digital access and skills holds the potential to have a life-changing effect. The project aims to help more residents to access essential on-line services with support and training from experienced volunteers and staff.” Babu Bhattacherjee – Director – Poplar HARCA

“Finding ways to address the digital divide in our communities has never been more important…”

Moving forward we will look to expand not only this scheme, but also other initiatives that make digital inclusion a priority. We recognise there is more work to be done to ensure every child is connected and has the right equipment to access effective tutoring and education.”

Mayor John Biggs – LBTH

“You are at an immediate disadvantage if you don’t have access to learning and information, so I am delighted we could level the playing field today for the children and families participating in the latest round of this exciting initiative.” Tracey Walsh, CEO – East End Community Foundation

“Digital inclusion must be a priority going forward. Access to the internet and suitable devices are essential for our families to allow them access to services, advice, information and online learning. Having the support of the East End Community Foundation, Poplar HARCA, the LETTA Trust and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, has meant we have been able to begin to reduce the digital divide in our community. Our families are delighted and so are we.” Karen Symons – Head, Clara Grant Primary

“It’s been wonderful to work with our community partners to deliver this to our families. It’s going to make a real difference to those who need it most during this difficult time and beyond. Community support like this is what makes Tower Hamlets a special place to work and live.” Owen O’Regan – Head, Lansbury Lawrence Primary

“At Community Fibre, digital inclusion is at the heart of what we do. We strive to provide fast, affordable, and reliable broadband to everyone in London. We are proud to help the East End Community Foundation, Poplar HARCA, the LETTA Trust and the London Borough of Tower Hamlets further with their mission in offering access to online education, which is more critical than ever in these difficult times. We will continue pursuing our efforts in 2021 to connect more families in London and bridge the digital gap.” Graeme Oxby, Chief Executive Officer of Community Fibre

The above quotes were from representatives of stakeholder organisations that made up the very strong partnership, developed out of the humble initiative made possible by our Power Up project. From 30 tablets funded from our Digital Skills for Work, we have since distributed over 400 tablets and laptops to those who need them especially during lockdowns.

The partnership has received very good feedback from potential supporters who have come forward to discuss how they could contribute to the scheme including an international charity Lady Fatehma Trust and the University College London – Institute of Global Prosperity.

We are very proud that after a year into the Power Up scheme, Poplar HARCA is able to slowly get nearer its BIG dream of realising a “wireless Poplar” – meaning: getting the majority of its residents connected to the internet and are fully digitally engaged. Partly thanks to the pandemic, the glaring reality of digital divide in our communities have been clearly exposed. The urgent need for devices, connectivity and IT/digital skills is clear for all to see. Like food, shelter, transport, health, education and other needs, Digital has to be recognised as a universal basic service.