Digital · housing

The Digital Inclusion Blues

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I’ve been ‘drafting’ a Digital Inclusion strategy for what feels like an ice age (for the record it’s been several months). I’ve had countless conversations with people, both face-to-face and via Twitter about the subject, I’ve also attended workshops and I’ve read tons of digital inclusion strategies and statistics.

So why the difficulty in writing a Digital Inclusion Strategy? For one thing, the picture is ever changing. The pace of technological change is fast and constant and not a week goes by without a new technological advancement that could be applied to #ukhousing.

Another challenge is that there is just so much to do to tackle digital inclusion. For the DI Strategy I’m writing, I’m trying to cover lots of different sections within our organisation, with a wide range of skills, experience and ages. This is just not easy. One answer for one group of tenants isn’t going to work for another. This leads to a really lengthy strategy, which I hate. I really want to keep this as short as possible, otherwise no-one will read it (including me). There’s also the challenge of rural vs coastal, the sheer availability of reliable and affordable internet access and mobile blackspots. You just are not able to connect in some areas.

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A third challenge is that to some degree we are all working in isolation. We have social housing tenants, private tenants and owner occupiers, many of which are suffering from digital exclusion, but we don’t always offer the same things to everyone. My DI Strategy for example is aimed at our tenants and customers. There’s no real mention as yet about the many tenants and owner occupiers who aren’t our direct customers accessing what we are looking to offer. Sure, I’ve had some conversations and meetings with other social landlords, but nothing has got off the ground about this (although I haven’t given up on this!).

Like a lot of organisations, we’ve been gathering some profiling data from our tenants. One area in particular I’m hoping to gain some insight on from the tenant profiling data is on digital inclusion. After asking on Twitter for some suggestions, these are the questions we included in our questionnaire:

  1. Do you have access to the internet at home?
  2. Do you have a smart phone?
  3. Do you access the internet on your phone? (a) on 3G (b) on wifi?
  4. Are you confident in your internet skills?

Now the sheer volume of suggested questions I received was amazing! I decided on asking the above questions as a ‘phase 1’ set of questions; ‘phase 2’ would go into a lot more detail than this. We’ve also been carrying out some more specific digital inclusion questionnaires in our Extra Care Housing Scheme (for Older People) to see if this shows us anything.

This is all coupled with some crystal clear statistics available which include:

  • Latest figures show there are still have a million people in Wales who are digitally excluded. One in five Welsh adults has never used the internet. Source: Wales Co-op, Digital Inclusion: Stronger Communities, 2014
  • 46% of social housing tenants do not have access to the internet within their own home. This amounts to over 214,000 digitally excluded tenants. Source: Welsh Government, ‘Device use and household access, by tenure’, National Survey for Wales Internet Access Figures, 2013

I have had some successes though (well one). I’ve been trialling the £30 UbiSlate tablet from Datawind and I’m now starting to roll this trial out to include some tenants (it’s not much of a success but I’ll take it).

However, I am really pleased to say that I’ve finally come to a conclusion – one which I have really had since I started drafting the DI Strategy. It’s not going to change the world, but for me it’s a really important step in the process.

It’s better to get on with doing something than just talking about it.

Mind you, first things first, I just need to complete and gain approval for V8 of our ‘draft’ DI Strategy……………

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Digital · housing

UbiSlate £30 tablet – the game changer?

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In 2012, a company called Datawind in India announced that they were going to produce a cheap tablet for the mass market.

Like many people, I assumed that cheap would either mean:

  • Really cheap (and subsequently next to useless);
  • Not so cheap (so probably of some use).

When the tablets were available to buy from the UK they cost just £30 to buy the basic model. For this you get:

  • 7’ TFT touch screen tablet;
  • Andriod 4.2.2 operating system;
  • Wifi enabled;
  • 1 year warranty;
  • Memory card slot.

Initial reports were quite encouraging – here’s a great blog post from Ed Bullock/Nick Atkin at Halton Housing Trust on the test they carried out at Halton Housing Trust.

Although obviously for the price they are not going to rival a top end tablet like the iPad in quality, power or usability, overall feedback has been encouraging.

Fast forward several months, and as part of our drive towards being a digital first organisation and to help tackle digital inclusion, I thought I’d order a UbiSlate through work to see just how good they are. So here’s the story so far.

I ordered the UbiSlate 7ci through their website on the 6th May 2014. It was a standard (if anything rather easy) ordering system. The cost of the tablet was £30, but postage and packaging was a further £9.95, making the grand total of £39.95. I received the Emails back by return saying the order had been received.

On the 12th May 2014 I Emailed their customer services to find out when I could expect delivery. They replied with ’due to high demand we are fulfilling orders on a first-come-first-serve basis. We anticipate your order to be fulfilled from our next delivery of products due in week commencing the 12th of May.’

I dutifully checked their website a few times a week to be told that the order was ‘pending’ and to check back regularly.

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Then, out of the blue on the 27th May (the day after a bank holiday) I received my UbiSlate through the post. What was interesting was that I had checked that morning on their website and had been given their standard order ‘pending’ message, so it really was a nice surprise.

So, to the UbiSlate. I carefully ripped open the packing (I was very excited) to find the box inside.

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The Tablet

On opening the box, I found very little packaging. The UbiSlate had a thin protective plastic sheet on the front and back, along with the charger and an instruction booklet.

On getting the UbiSlate out of the box, I managed to accidentally turn it on. Then I proceeded to try and read the instructions quickly to check whether I needed to charge it first. The instructions said it needed 6-8 hours charging before use. I quickly plugged the charger in! It seems that the UbiSlate was already nearly charged, which was a nice surprise. I’ve no idea whether this is standard practice though.

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The tablet itself looks really nice. It doesn’t weigh too much, but feels sturdier than I expected. Not expensive feeling, but certainly not dirt cheap feeling either. I’ve had it sat on my desk for most of the last week and I’ve taken the opportunity to ask a few staff what they think. They seem to agree that it looks pretty good.

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Upon turning it on and it loading up with the Datawind logo (10 seconds or so), I was faced with a screen showing the time, along with a small lock image. With my finger I just moved the lock outside the circle and you are in. The initial screen looks a lot like the Samsung Galaxy tablet main screen. You’ve got the main 5 app icons along the bottom, one of which shows you the 46 apps already on the UbiSlate. Some of these you would just uninstall (as the UbiSlate was primarily made for Indian school age children, you probably won’t find a use for ‘Talking English’) and you can obviously add any apps you want as well.

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The tablet comes with two web browsers installed – the one at the bottom of the main screen just didn’t work for me, so I used the generic android browser. The first website I went on was google.com (had to be, didn’t it?) and I found that the google search box was just off the page. Turning the UbiSlate to portrait seemed to fix that. I’m sure more tekkie minded people would know instantly how to fix this, but I didn’t.

The £30 tablet connects through Wifi and the experience of connecting to the internet was fine. No problems at all to report.

I used the SlideMe to download a few apps. After putting in some basic logging details, it was pretty easy to find the apps and download them. I went for LinkedIn and Twitter, to give them a good test. Both worked well, downloaded quickly and although they looked different to what I’m used to, they were more than useable and easy to navigate.

The tablet comes with a front facing camera, meaning you can take those all important #selfies. But it’s fair to say that the picture quality isn’t great. I read elsewhere that the picture quality reminded them of the quality you used to get on the first webcams that came on the market. Spot on description. That said, its better having the camera than not. It also potentially makes apps like Skype useable through the UbiSlate, although I haven’t tested that out as yet.

As with a lot of lower end tablets, if you don’t turn the tablet off (just holding the top right button until it turns off), then it will drain itself of power over a few days. Thankfully it doesn’t take long to charge up from 0% to 100% – about 2½ hours. For 100% power use, you get anything from around 2 ½ hours to 3 hours battery life which if not bad at all. I’ve seen laptops with less.

So, overall I’m pretty impressed by the UbiSlate 7ci. It’s not too heavy, fits in your hand nicely and really is pretty easy to use. It’s certainly a useable tablet which opens up some interesting options.

Future Uses

One option is to give this to tenants who could easily save the £30+ cost on savings they gain through buying things through the internet or from the savings we as a landlord would get for a tenant contacting us digitally rather than by telephone or face-to-face. The other option is to give this for staff to use for some basic work functions. Both of these would obviously require some additional field research, but certainly seem worth exploring further. Of course, this would also require decent Wifi connectivity, or you’ll have to opt for the more expensive 7C+ version at £69.99.

My initial thoughts are that you would want to take most of the pre-loaded apps off and put some specific ones on that tenants could use to contact the organisation, or ones to save them money. There is no reason why the content can’t be more targeted according to the audience. Also, let’s not forget the cost. This is really cheap for a tablet. People spend more than this on a lot of smartphones today and they are seen as an essential item for a lot of people.

They would also make great options for digital inclusion training sessions for tenants, as they are so cheap. You could buy 10 or so of them and (as long as you have decent Wifi) get them used to using a tablet and surfing the web. Other options I’ve read elsewhere is to use them for showing video clips (for example on a reception desk) or as digital signboard outside meeting rooms. There certainly seems to be lots of possible options for the UbiSlate in the future.

I’ll continue testing the UbiSlate through work and I think it’s highly likely we’ll look at getting some more of them to conduct some specific tests and projects.

Watch this space for more details!