Digital Champions help communities get connected

A ground-breaking cross-community project in West Belfast aims to tackle a massive digital skills gap by training grassroots Digital Champions to go out into their areas and help others learn to use the internet and get better connected.

Digital Champions project

The Digital Champions project, being run at Innovation Factory, is training 20 people from a variety of community groups with the aim of creating self-sustaining hubs where local residents can get help and learn how to get online.

“In today’s world, if you can’t access the internet, you’re being left behind. The ability to use digital technology is increasingly fundamental to our capacity to function, whether it’s applying for a job, connecting with family, accessing important services or simply finding information. As adults there are huge barriers to learning that we are trying to address through this project,” explained Julie McGrath from Digi Skills, who delivers the workshops.

The 10-week project is a partnership between Innovation Factory, Digi Skills, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and Black Mountain Shared Space.

Shane Smith, IF Engagement manager, explained: “We work closely with the local community and saw an acute digital skills gap impacting people in this area. We knew that within Innovation Factory we have people who could help deliver digital training that can be rolled out to a wider audience. Once you train one person well, they can then go out and spread this knowledge.”

Innovation Factory is owned by Belfast City Council and operated on their behalf by Oxford Innovation. The £9.1m business hub was funded by Belfast City Council and Invest NI with support from the European Regional Development Fund.

Black Mountain Shared Space identified the groups working in the West Belfast area that would benefit from this project, which is funded by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive.

Stephen Gamble from the Housing Executive said: “We are very happy to support this project through our community involvement grants programme. We can all see the need for digital skills has never been greater in most areas of everyday life.

“Blackmountain Shared Space continue to deliver fantastic programmes and it is our hope the digital champions in this course will use the skills they have learnt, and share their skills with friends, family and the wider community in West Belfast.”

Ciaran Boyd from Black Mountain Shared Space, which is based at Innovation Factory, explained: “This is a truly ground-breaking project that is bringing together both sides of the community in a neutral venue like Innovation Factory with the common purpose of helping others. The Digital Champions are working together to learn but they are also coming up with new ideas that have the potential to help hundreds of other people. What better community plan than a shared space full of cross community activity and local volunteers focusing on reducing the digital divide and building positive relationships?”

He added that the relaxed hands-on format of the course has led to so many enquiries from others that there’s now a waiting list for a second course.

One of the participants, Anto Harte from the Gortnamona Men’s Shed, explained that before the Digital Champions project he had few digital skills but that the training is so well focused that he has really developed his skills.

“It’s brilliant because you aren’t bombarded. They teach you exactly what you need to do. I didn’t have any confidence at the start but I’ve already been able to order materials for the Men’s Shed online and plan to bring training in for our members,” he said.

And Hugh McIlveen from Highspring Residents Group said that many people over 50 can feel left behind as they wouldn’t have had any digital training in school.

“This training is exactly what we needed. Now we can help people to get online and do things like fill in forms or apply for jobs,” he said.

There are also plans for digital drop-in centres and the first will go ahead this month in Highfield Community Centre and Newhill Community Group with more to come.

Black Mountain Shared Space is in the process of developing a new cross community building on a peaceline site on the Ballygomartin Road that will act as a welcoming, safe and accessible state-of-the art hub in which it will deliver services such as digital training and access.

Digital Champions

For more information on Digi Skills go to www.digiskills.agency or on Black Mountain go to www.blackmountainsharedspace.org. And to find out more about community engagement at Innovation Factory go to www.innovationfactoryni.com.

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