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The digital landscape in Wales – why volunteers are essential to closing the digital divide

by Cadi Cliff, Programme Manager, Digital Communities Wales.

As we navigate our way through an increasingly digital world, the need for volunteers to gain digital skills and confidence has never been more crucial.   

The importance of being digitally included was put under a spotlight as organisations, communities, and individuals pivoted their lives in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. People began to work from home, studying shifted online, online food deliveries became the norm for many, virtual consultations increased and waving to friends and family via our screens became normalised.  

Fast forward to 2022 and many of those changes are still with us – some will stay for good as the transformative benefits of digital technology continue to be highlighted.  

The digitisation of our health services in Wales continues, from NHS Wales’ aim to transform health and care for patients and public by developing the NHS Wales App, to ambitious plans from Welsh Government for transforming planned care with a goal of 35% of all new appointments and 50% of follow-up appointments being delivered virtually by 2025. Nursing records in Wales have been going digital, and digital support volunteers have been identified as key potential ways of improving wellbeing and experience in Health Boards. 

It’s not just in our health services where digital has been and continues to be embraced though. We have seen organisations come together to innovate for the benefit of all, such as with Cymuned, the Virtual Village Hall for Anglesey, which makes local communities more accessible for all who want to be involved. Housing organisations like Newydd have provided online support through digital classrooms as they work to empower their tenants with the skills and confidence to get online and use the internet safely and effectively.  

We have seen the first Daring to Dream festival-at-home, ‘Lleswyl’, be a vibrant online success bringing people together in an inclusive space aimed at supporting the wellbeing of those who normally cannot attend live gigs due to chronic illness, disability or loneliness. Then there is the continued increase in the number of organisations becoming ‘Online Centres’ in Wales, critical digital inclusion hubs based at the heart of hyper-local communities giving people the tools and skills to access the online world.  

As we move at pace in this increasingly digital world, digital inclusion is now no longer a nice to have but a need to have, and we must ensure that people are not left behind. 

Volunteers play not only a critical role in communities but a critical role in closing the digital divide through giving their time to pass on digital skills to others. Be it supporting someone to turn on a device for the first time, make an appointment online, learning how to make a video call to family, attend a social online, book an online delivery or find information on public services – volunteers are at the heart of empowering people to be online in ways that are meaningful to them.  

Since 2019 Digital Communities Wales have been working in partnership with Good Things Foundation in Wales around the digital inclusion agenda. When it comes to the way Covid-19 changed the way we live and work and our wider relationship with digital technology, Hilary Nugent, Volunteer Manager at Good Things Foundation, reflects that: 

“The necessity for remote support has provided opportunities for innovation and improvement in volunteer engagement.  Training held online at varying times of day allows greater access, and digital tools have enabled volunteers’ views to be sought more widely. Volunteer peer support, and strategy co-production has grown. Organisations have developed streamlined and easy to access recruitment pathways. 

However, alongside the positive changes we must be aware of the digital divide and how it may marginalise or exclude both existing and new volunteers. Not only lack of digital skills, but also digital poverty and lack of access to devices may prevent potentially excellent volunteers from coming forward to help in their communities. 

With 2M adults across the UK struggling to afford broadband, and 7% of the adult population in Wales considered Digitally Excluded, it has never been more important to consider how to make volunteering digitally accessible to all.” 

If you or someone you know wants to help in your community and would like to increase your digital skills, Digital Communities Wales can help with this. We provide training for volunteers to both increase their own digital skills and confidence as well as look at how they can support someone to get online. Our partners, Good Things Foundation, run the Online Centres Network and in addition to the support available for volunteers, the Online Centres offer access to Learn My Way, an online learning platform with over 30 free courses on Learn My Way ranging from using a keyboard to support with how to search for jobs online. 

We know the power that volunteers have and we must ensure that we support and empower volunteers to have the access, digital skills, and confidence themselves to be online and help others online.

Digital Communities Wales: Digital Confidence, Health and Well-being helps organisations that are working with people who could benefit from having basic digital skills.

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A photograph of an older woman sat at a desk using a laptop. Standing next to her, also looking at the laptop is a male digital volunteer. The screen of the laptop is displaying three penguins.