Friday, 5 December 2008

A forum for change?

As part on WRC’s ongoing interest in the potential of social media (this very blog being a perfect example), I went to the IT Innovation in the Community event, organised by Ealing CVS and DC10. Case studies were used to show how people could make use of technology to engage with local communities. Digital inclusion is vitally important, with ICT being identified as the third skill for life, along with literacy and numeracy. But 75% of socially excluded adults do not use the internet, so we have to be very careful about balancing the opportunities on offer with the danger of excluding the most vulnerable groups.

One workshop showcased Ealing Community Network (ECN), which is piloting online consultation forums to access marginalised groups, by enabling strategic partners to consult with groups on service delivery. There are two forums: one for disabled people and one for Muslim women. The forum for disabled people to consult with Ealing Police has 12 members and is very successful. The Muslim women’s forum (for Ealing Hospital Trust to ask questions about service in both the accident and emergency department and the maternity unit) has 8 members, but it was clear from the outset that the level of support needed to access the forum was high, mainly due to the varying levels of English and IT skills amongst the women. This meant that activity levels were relatively low.

This was a small, but valuable, pilot project and ECN will be following up with a second round of discussions in the new year. It does, though, pose questions about how to reach marginalised groups. It can be a success, as shown by the disabled people’s forum, but the varying levels ‘life skills’ in the Muslim women’s community meant that not as many potential beneficiaries were reached. Nor were their voices heard.

Should the VCS be shifting focus to these kind of initiatives before making sure that basic IT skills are available in the communities we are trying to benefit? This a good question, but not one which should hold us back. This kind of project means that women are being reached who would otherwise not have had their voice heard. While this is not the only way to consult groups, it seems that any responses gathered are valuable. This kind of tool should be used as a way of complementing other methods for consultation and information sharing. The potential in these tools is an opportunity too good to miss!

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