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Sunderland launches new Community Digital Health Hubs initiative to drive digital inclusion

In a mission to build digital inclusion across Sunderland, new Community Digital Health Hubs are being set up to help people get on-line safely, offering residents free access to devices, Wi-Fi and support to build their digital confidence and skills.  

30 January 2024 | Sunderland, England

Launching across 22 locations from February, the project, which has received funding from the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), aims to tackle digital challenges faced by cities across the globe, such as limited connectivity, lack of access to digital infrastructure, and the cost barriers associated with going online.

The project is a collaboration between Sunderland City Council, leading neutral host provider Boldyn Networks, the British Esports Federation and 22 trusted community partners. The initiative forms part of a wider scheme, Links for Life, which was recently launched across Sunderland to empower communities to improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Employing a hyper-local approach, the hubs seek to deliver ‘doorstep’ digital services directly to communities, focusing on those with the least connectivity and those that are most susceptible to digital exclusion.

Powered by Sunderland’s extensive public Wi-Fi network, a result of Sunderland City Council’s and Boldyn Networks’ partnership to build a smarter, more digitally connected city, this innovative network of Community Digital Health Hubs will contribute to the city’s success in the digital age by ensuring that residents, regardless of their current level of digital engagement, can build their digital skills and confidence.

Each Hub has access to multiple tools that can be used to tailor a digital support package to fit the individual’s needs – from taking their first steps and getting online to thriving in a digital world.

The investment has been used to provide:

  • Upgraded Wi-Fi and sensor installation: Buildings have had their existing Wi-Fi systems replaced with new architecture and coverage extended to all public and staffing areas to deliver optimal performance. In addition, sensors have been installed to count footfall and maintain the health and integrity of Hub environments.
  • Provision of digital devices: Each Hub received a budget to purchase digital devices for residents to access and connect to the internet.
  • Databanks: Some Hubs act as a Databank, providing free SIM cards and data to eligible people, ensuring that the city’s most vulnerable people can stay connected.
  • Tech Mates: A knowledge sharing and upskilling initiative involving local people who have been trained as Tech Mates, will ensure less tech savvy residents are supported to gain the skills they need.
  • Online centres: Each Hub offers access to Wi-Fi, devices and basic digital skills support, and encourages progression by signposting people to learning platforms like Learn My Way, or to local training providers.
  • Device Donation Hubs: Some of the Hubs have signed up with a local business, Born Good, to help people donate devices that canbe recycled and rehomed.
  • Community Esports Hubs: Five of the Hubs are receiving gaming kits to set up Community Esports Hubs. Working alongside the British Esports Federation and believed to be the first of its kind, the project will raise awareness about the gaming industry and encourage people of all ages into educational and employment pathways.

Recent research indicates that 1 in 3 people in Sunderland have never been online or lack basic digital literacy skills. With an overarching aim of leaving no one and nowhere behind, the Digital Hubs are another smart solution implemented by Sunderland City Council in their journey to improve digital inclusion across the city.

Liz St Louis, Director of Smart Cities at Sunderland City Council, said: “From the very start of our Smart City journey, we envisioned a future where the digital divide is addressed collaboratively, ensuring that no one and nowhere is left behind. Our Digital Inclusion Plan is ensuring that everyone in Sunderland, regardless of their age or situation can reap the opportunities afforded by digital.

“The UKSPF investment and our partnership with Boldyn Networks has played a crucial role in providing the necessary infrastructure and digital inclusion services in the heart of Sunderland communities.”

Claire Venners, Director of Smart Places UK & Ireland at Boldyn Networks, added: “The Digital Health Hubs will make a difference to residents across Sunderland at a community level, leveraging the power of digital technology to enhance residents’ health and wellbeing.

“Playing a crucial role in promoting accessible, inclusive and technology-driven solutions for communities, the Digital Health Hubs aim to empower individuals across the city. By providing access to digital devices and the internet, we can ensure residents have the necessary tools and skills to make the most of life enhancing digital resources.”

Read the article in full on the Sunderland Our Smart City website here.