Taskforce launched to tackle digital divide across region

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority is gathering senior leaders, industry, community groups and local government to drive ambitions to be a 100% digitally-enabled city region with the formation of a new Digital Inclusion Taskforce.

Recent analysis from the University of Liverpool and the Good Things Foundation suggests as many as 1.2 million people across Greater Manchester could be excluded in some way from the opportunities that digital brings.

More than 700,000 people in Greater Manchester are only using the internet in a narrow or limited way and a further 450,000 classified as ‘non-users.’

The Greater Manchester Digital Inclusion Taskforce, which is due to meet for the first-time next week, aims to address the barriers of digital exclusion and the digital divide, in a co-ordinated and focused way, informed by local needs and sharing learning, resource and expertise.

This joined up approach which is bringing together key players from across the UK is already having an impact.

Earlier this month Vodafone launched a UK-wide schools.connected programme to address data poverty for digitally excluded young people in schools, providing 250,000 SIM-only data packages, with unprecedented demand.

As a response, Vodafone has announced an extension to the programme now offering data connectivity support to college students.

The schools.connected programme will help students to access learning resources remotely and ensure they can stay connected to peers and support, especially during the Winter months.

Schools and colleges will be able to order data SIMs to give to pupils who find it difficult to access education from home because they don’t have the right connectivity.

Cllr Sean Fielding, GMCA lead for employment, skills and digital, said: “I’m proud to announce our intention that Greater Manchester be a 100% digitally-enabled city region, a region that puts people at the heart of our plans.

“Access to the digital world should be a basic human right, everyone in Greater Manchester, whatever their age, location, or situation, should be able to benefit from the opportunity’s digital brings.

“Young people in Greater Manchester, as part of the new Young Persons Guarantee, have identified keeping connected as a key issue that needs addressing to protect their future.

“This announcement from Vodafone is important in highlighting and addressing the connectivity issues that young people continue to face, getting connectivity to the students that need it most.”

He added: “I want us to continue to work with government, industry, communities and the voluntary sector to level the digital playing field and would encourage anyone with a stake in digital inclusion, or those who benefit from our people being online, to get involved and help us shape this important agenda.”

Earlier this year the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, announced the development of a Young Person’s Guarantee for those who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The guarantee will reflect young people’s concerns about the future and will offer an outline of support and opportunities available, building on what is already available, as well as identifying and responding to gaps.

Lisa O’Loughlin, chair of Greater Manchester Colleges’ Group and principal of The Manchester College, said: “We are delighted that this generous offer from Vodafone has now been extended to include further education colleges.

“Across Greater Manchester the nine FE colleges work in every borough with many of our most digitally-excluded young people, including an estimated one in five of the colleges’ 30,000 young learners who lack the necessary connectivity or equipment to study at home, as required during COVID.

“The Greater Manchester Colleges’ Group is collectively working on a blended learning project to ensure all its learners benefit fully from online learning, and the support of this initiative will make a significant contribution to their education and future life chances.”

Mo Isap, Greater Manchester Local Enterprise Partnership co-chair, said: “Our ambition is to become a world leading digital city region, but we can only achieve this by becoming fully digitally enabled. All residents and businesses have equal access to the opportunities on offer.

Tackling digital exclusion and promoting fair access is an enormous challenge, and one that we sometimes underestimate.

“The new Digital Inclusion Taskforce reflects the spirit of collaboration that exists in Greater Manchester. Through partnerships, networks and industry organisations we’re more collaborative than we ever have been before, and this spirit must endure if we want everyone to benefit from the city region’s strength in digital.”