I remember the day my dad brought home our first family computer.
I was around 9 or 10 years old, and it was a Hewlett-Packard 486. A few years later, we got our first dial-up modem. It used the same phone line as our house, so between my parents, my brother, my sister, and myself, we had to learn to share.
It’s 2020 now. I’m working 100% remote these days, and I’m thinking back and trying to imagine what it would be like to share one under-powered computer with a spotty internet connection between a family of five with everyone trying to work or go to school from home.
That’s not a hypothetical. That’s the reality for millions of people right now. Not just in rural areas or third-world countries. It’s the reality in wealthy cities, too. In the Bay Area. In London.
Solving that challenge is TechInclusionUK’s mission.
TechInclusionUK is a volunteer organization working at the fulcrum of digital exclusion, data poverty, and sustainability in the UK. They’re delivering devices and connectivity to help kids and families maintain their education during the pandemic.
Early on in this crisis, Front wanted to figure out how we could help teams working on direct aid and response make a greater impact. We started offering Front for free to organizations responding to coronavirus. We’re now serving over 25 teams around the world, from healthcare workers to teams like TechInclusionUK, who are solving problems that COVID-19 has created or exacerbated.
I had a chance to chat over Zoom with Rich Clensy, who co-founded TechInclusionUK. I hoped to learn more about this critical issue and find out how Front is a small part of addressing it.
You can read our lightly edited conversation below.
What’s TechInclusionUK and what do you do?
We were originally a concept that was born in conversation around how we could help at the peak of the pandemic in the UK. I'd spent most of the lockdown period and the height of the pandemic working on a project called Meals for the NHS (National Health Service). And that was about feeding frontline NHS workers throughout the pandemic. I'd spent my time being quite involved in this really huge project that ultimately was 100 people by the end. And by the end of it, I was at that kind of point where normal life wasn't quite ready to have me back.
I was talking to a friend of mine who is now the co-founder of TechInclusionUK UK, Collette. And we were basically talking about how we could continue to help make change. And our conversation coincided with a piece that we'd seen on the BBC around digital exclusion and education, and that education had moved online. But there was an issue with people accessing education online because they fundamentally don't have the internet at home. They don't have devices. And we started to do a little bit more digging and a bit more scratching beneath the surface to understand what the problem is.
I am a school governor in London and I work quite closely within the education community. Collette and I both have parents who are educators, which gave us the access to the immediacy of the issue. And we realized that there was this problem with children accessing education and continuing to learn. And it had a knock-on effect on things like attainment, social interaction, access — all of the services that you get when you go to school physically. All of those pieces were being missed out on because kids don't have the access they needed at home. So we then decided that we would be able to do something about it. And Collette's background is within data security and infosec, so we were really aware of the safeguarding issues and the parameters of getting children onto the Internet and giving them devices to access it.
We originally thought, well, we could raise money and buy devices. That's easy, right? We can emulate a model that already exists — crowdfunding — and use that money to buy brand new devices and give them to kids. But there are about 11 million unused devices in the UK. They’re pretty much perfectly usable but are not being used. We thought we could do something around sustainability and started thinking about how we can recycle and reuse these devices.
And ever since then, we have been working on TechInclusionUK as a social enterprise here in the UK. Today, we are a nonprofit organization powered by volunteers. A small amount of the grassroots funding that we do have is being utilized to make sure that we're wiping and restoring as many devices as possible in order to get them into the community. We're currently focused on quite a specific area in East London, but we're working with a national collaborative effort on how to help with digital exclusion, data poverty, and sustainable tech. And we’re helping educate young people to think about things differently. So, if you do upgrade your phone or your laptop, what do you do with it? What else can it be used for?
TechInclusionUK provides a platform for people to give technology devices — PCs, laptops, tablets, phones. We restore them and distribute them to the community. We’re focusing on refurbishing devices to be ChromeOS enabled utilizing Neverware — this means we’re able to increase the lifespan of devices.
The pandemic has changed a lot of things, but digital exclusion isn’t a new issue. Obviously we’ve all heard about laptop shortages, but how else has COVID changed this dynamic for you both in the UK and around the world?
COVID has exacerbated and highlighted what was essentially an under-the-radar issue. A lot of people, when they think about digital exclusion, they think of developing nations. But actually, digital exclusion is huge in the UK, and I imagine it's very similar in the US.
In many cases, parents are working, they have access to a family computer, they may also have an iPad or another tablet. We’ve seen those families who are already connected to the Internet, who already have devices — those families are just as impacted by digital exclusion now because parents are working from home. Or you have multi-children households with two or three siblings — maybe one is in primary education and one’s in high school, both needing access to technology throughout the same period of the day. Do those families have the financial means to purchase another computer or a laptop or device?
And in the UK, we've seen that schools that have the financial capacity to provide devices to every child, they’re going to only one half of the spectrum. The other half are the have-nots. These are people who were already digitally excluded prior to COVID happening. They’re at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale who are experiencing other forms of deprivation and exclusion.
And then there's a huge cultural divide between how technology is used. Lots of social services, local services moved online at the beginning of lockdown in March, which is great. But if you don't have access to the Internet, if you don't have access to a computer; a PC, a laptop, you fundamentally can't access those services. Whilst TechInclusionUK focuses primarily on education right now, that's all part of the big goal. We believe that empowerment through education will allow people to do more long term. It allows us to do more with the future. But actually, if you look at the here and now, if we can connect households to the Internet and to a computer, it allows them to access a world of services and social interaction that they have ultimately been excluded from purely because they don't have 25, 30 pounds or dollars to pay for a broadband connection.
What I want to paint a picture of is what happens if we get this right. Obviously, the early childhood and teenage years are such a critical developmental period for children. But if we get this right, will these kids come away with a stronger foundation to learn, work, and connect remotely? Like, I know I've struggled with this transition to being fully remote. Do you think that this experience could help kids adapt better than me?
Absolutely. To be able to participate as a contributor to your local community, to your local economy in the workplace, you need to understand and be able to work online. You need to have digital skills — be it coding, SQL, HTML, building stuff, or more day-to-day skills. Digital skills impact every problem, every sector, and every market within every economy. So there is a huge part to play here. Providing devices and connectivity to children is empowering them to access digital skills and train themselves.
When we talk about digital education, a lot of people immediately get hung up on formal education provided by a school. But for us, education is a means or a pathway. You learn every day, even if you're outside of a classroom. A laptop is a prime example. If you provide someone with a laptop and access to the Internet, you essentially provide them with a window of opportunity. And with that window of opportunity, they can continue to learn through formal education, through the school, but they also get access to learn a whole range of other things that they might not in school.
It might be that they learn how to code on YouTube. They may learn how to play a musical instrument on YouTube. They are able to learn another language, for example. Those are all kinds of opportunities that you immediately miss out on. That access allows people to connect and socialize. It allows people to apply for jobs. You know, we talk about digital skills for the workplace — one of the most important things that you will need for applying for a job is a CV or a resume. And that requires some basic level of digital skill to produce.
So there’s this really big knock-on effect.
TechInclusionUK — you're all working as volunteers, you're all remote. What have been the challenges that you've seen organizationally trying to spin up this new team while you're not in the same room? And how does Front help solve those challenges?
I actually used Front a few years ago at Midrive, which is a company that I worked for. We used it as our main customer service, customer support, and sales email. One of the things that always stuck with me about Front was just its pure ease of use and set up. And it had this awesome SMS functionality, which allowed us to deliver really great support and deliver excellent customer service through a really, really easy to use platform. And I've used Front periodically throughout that period. I've introduced it to new companies that I've consulted for and I've introduced it to new companies I've worked for. And at Meals for the NHS, it allowed that team to grow very, very quickly.
So when we were starting out with TechInclusionUK, it was the first tool that immediately sprung to mind. The thing that I really love is that I can get someone to log in and they immediately are very familiar with how to use it. There's nothing that's particularly complicated or that requires hours and hours of training. It's great out of the box, it's very customizable, and it allows a really excellent kind of collaboration and freedom to just get on with making an impact.
And that’s uniquely important, because volunteers are giving their time for free. They believe in the cause and the mission. They want to move the mission forward. But we know that people have lives. People have other commitments. People have to earn a living. And fundamentally, that does cause delay and it stretches projects out maybe a little bit longer than they would be if you think of them in a workplace. And that's something we had to adapt to quite quickly.
In previous companies, I've managed teams to get things done to a very particular deadline because it had a huge financial impact on the business. But at TechInclusionUK, we all work at different times, different patterns. Some people have full-time jobs, other people don't. There’s a very asynchronistic communication pattern. We don't have the commercial pressure as a volunteer organization. Front has allowed us to just crack on with it and has really given us the freedom to have open, transparent conversations, to keep things moving and to ultimately make impact.
Written by Matthew Klassen
Originally Published: 26 October 2020