Digital communities

Digital Zones

Digital Zones were physical spaces on the premises of our partner organisations where volunteer digital champions held informal, regular drop-in sessions to help people with their digital skills. These partner-led zones were designed to engage with large numbers of people in a light-touch, friendly way, in a non-intimidating environment.

A Digital Zone is a designated area in an existing site, such as a bank or retail store, that people can visit to improve their basic digital skills. They are staffed by volunteer digital champions from the local area who help people with their specific digital questions or issues.

In Croydon and Lewisham, Digital Zones were set up in a wide range of locations including Lloyds Bank branches, EE and Argos stores, job centres, libraries, Croydon Council's Access Zone and housing association community spaces, with trained staff acting as digital champions on hand to help residents. In summer 2016, we ran a Digital Day in Croydon town centre to raise awareness of the Digital Zones.

By February 2017, almost 6,000 residents in Croydon and Lewisham had been helped to gain basic digital skills by attending one or more sessions at a Digital Zone. Some of the original learners have now gone on to become digital champion volunteers to support their neighbours, friends and family.

A photograph showing the Croydon Access Zone
Image: The Croydon Access Zone, one of a number of Digital Zones in Croydon

Our Digital Zone sits in the heart of our face-to-face service for residents, Access Croydon … We know that the digital world can feel intimidating to people, particularly to vulnerable groups, so we’ve created our Digital Zone to be a friendly, social space where people can come and get help or advice from our digital champions in a relaxed atmosphere.

- Graham Cadle, Assistant Chief Executive, Croydon Council

How the Zones work

A photograph showing the residents and digital champions in the weekly Lewisham Homes Zone
Image: Residents with digital champions at the weekly Lewisham Homes Zone

Information about Digital Zones is available in libraries and community centres. People may be offered an introductory session by a digital champion as they wait in a Lloyds banking queue or attend council offices, for example.

People can take up advice on the spot or pre-book an appointment. They can attend once, or as many times as they like - and there is no set topic or time period for the first session. The sessions are entirely tailored to the learner's needs. Equipment is provided, but people can bring their own device if they wish.

At the end of their visit to the Digital Zone, people are asked to identify which of the five basic digital skills they have learned about, and explain their motivation for attending the Zone. They are then asked whether visiting the Digital Zone has improved their basic digital skills and increased their confidence to use them.

Examples of Digital Zones at work

Erasmus's visit

Erasmus rated his digital skills as low and is learning English as a foreign language. He came to the Digital Zone wanting to find out about bus driver jobs, learn about the progress of his application for a security guard licence, and find out about his council tax bill.

During his visit to the Digital Zone he:

  • sent a live chat message to an adviser at the Arriva bus company to find out about bus driver jobs. He was delighted to find that the adviser replied straight away with a phone number to call.
  • searched for and found the Security Industry Authority website where he could track the progress of his application and contacted them by email.
  • found the council tax page on Croydon Council’s website and sent an email about his bill.
  • searched for bus driver jobs, found relevant recruitment agencies and also a job vacancy in the local area. He found out that a CV was needed for his application.
  • found CV templates on the BBC website along with help and tips on applying for jobs.

At the end of his visit Erasmus was happy with the progress he’d made and took notes of all the website addresses so he could follow up after leaving the Digital Zone.

Mrs C's visit

Mrs C has visited the Digital Zone several times for help to learn basic digital skills. During this visit she wanted to learn more about keyboard functions and shortcuts.

By the end of her session she had learnt to close webpage windows using the 'Ctrl' and 'Esc' keys and to adjust the volume control using keys rather than a mouse.

Mrs C was pleased with what she had learnt and said she preferred the keyboard functions as she found scrolling with the mouse to be more difficult and time consuming.

Digital Days

A photo showing digital champions at work at the Digital Day A photo showing the signs on a Digital Day tent
Images: Scenes from a Digital Day in Croydon town centre

To raise awareness of the importance of basic digital skills and of the support on offer at Digital Zones, we worked with Croydon Council to host a Digital Day in July 2016.

The #GoCroydon Digital Day created a pop-up Digital Zone in the town centre, staffed by volunteer digital champions and supported with partner-provided equipment and goody bags and leaflets on Digital Zones and where to go for further help.

Digital champions fielded a wide range of questions - from how to create an email account, to what cookies are, avoiding scams and even setting up Pokemon Go on a mobile phone.

Many people said they had a friend or relative who needed help, which helped us to publicise the existing Digital Zones in the borough.

Meeting a large number of people gave us a better picture of local people’s basic digital skills and will help shape our work in the future.

What we found

1. The Digital Zones were extremely popular and attracted nearly 6,000 visitors across both boroughs.

People liked the informality and flexibility that meant they could drop in to solve a one-off problem or attend regularly for a series of sessions.

It’s amazing, because you have one-to-one and nobody is frustrated to help you. They’re so nice and I see lots of people coming back. Now I check my email and I just started on Facebook.

- Sam, Croydon resident

I can Skype my sisters in America and Barbados… it’s really helpful.

- Pauline, Croydon resident

People say they enjoyed the one-to-one, face-to-face support offered in the Digital Zones and engaged best when they came on the recommendation of friends and family.

The Digital Zones have been a good starting point for people lacking basic digital skills. Those who want to build on their new skills are pointed to the services of supporting groups such as UK Online Centres and "Learn My Way" library sessions.

From the feedback we received, 72% of respondents claimed an increase in their basic digital skills, and 87% of respondents have reported increased confidence in using them.

A photograph showing the Lewisham Libary digital zone
Image: Learners at the Lewisham Library digital zone

2. The Digital Zones were also popular with volunteers and partner organisations.

Over 350 Croydon Council staff signed up to be digital champions, providing a good foundation for the project to continue after the pilot phase.

Digital champions told us they’d gained a huge amount of satisfaction by being able to share their skills with other residents. In particular, champions from our corporate partners said being a digital champion had added variety to their role and increased their own confidence levels.

To someone who was thinking of volunteering to become a digital champion I would say, don’t hesitate just go along and try and you’ll probably find you really enjoy it and that you’ve got a lot more to give than you think

- Karen Ogilvy, St Philip's Church, Norbury

When I found out that Lloyds were setting up digital zones to help people who were less inclined with their digital skills, it was something I felt I couldn’t miss out on.’

- Aaron Thurston, Lloyds Banking Group

What I would say to someone who’s thinking about becoming a Digital Champion is that it’s easy, it’s just talking to people and showing them that going online is not as difficult as they think it is.

- Aminata Bundu, Croydon Council

I volunteered to become a digital champion because I had seen first-hand with older relatives how access to the internet opened up new worlds of information which kept them mentally and physically active, while online connectivity to family and friends allowed relationships across the generations to remain strong and reduced isolation and loneliness.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the sessions, meeting some wonderful residents and sharing their amazement and joy when they realised that, with just a few clicks of a mouse, they could skype their granddaughter in Canada or browse the wonderful show gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show.

- Joe Egan, Croydon Council

3. Digital Zones need to be accessible outside town centres and high streets.

Not all our target groups were prepared or able to come into the borough centres. In future we would recommend running permanent and temporary Digital Zones in other parts of the borough to ensure we are offering basic digital skills to the most hard-to-reach residents.