Ambassador Group Empowers People Through Technology
Imagine living on a fixed or very limited income, with little technological knowledge, and being completely unable to access important resources like e-government.
This is a reality for many residents in communities such as the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. In our fast-paced world, lack of access to technology is a growing issue, as more and more essential services and resources are converted to an online format. This causes added frustration for those who feel that they’re increasingly “left behind.”
To meet this growing user need, William Booth, Literacy Outreach Coordinator for the Downtown Eastside and a member of the Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable, is helping to organize pop-up tech cafés at various sites around Downtown Vancouver.
“Most information that is needed for these learners are now online,” Booth said in a recent interview. “They have to go to centres to fill out government forms and access essential information as everything is online now. They may have access to devices, most of which are not the newest models, and don’t have data or phone contracts but they have access to smartphones or a laptop.”
“This is an important literacy activity,” Booth continued. “It bridges a divide, and gives access to learning for people who otherwise wouldn’t have access.”
Residents can now attend these informal cafés, enjoy a coffee, interact with others, and get their tech questions answered by UBC students and community members who volunteer as ambassadors. These ambassadors, who reside in and are well-known in the Downtown Eastside, visit various locations at specified times, and assist those who require help to do specific tasks.
The pop-up café idea started when a social service finder app was created and launched in the Downtown Eastside (DTES). The app was a collaboration between the DTES Literacy Roundtable, the UBC Learning Exchange and a fourth year Computer Science student.
The app was specifically designed to help area residents more easily locate services such as shelters, medical help, and food through device geo-location, and provide critical, detailed, and up-to-date information that can’t be provided by existing paper directories.
Booth observed that various hard copy directories often have static or outdated information, and many residents simply couldn’t find what they needed in the community. The project task group, of which he is a part, continues to meet with service providers in the area, and works with providers to keep relevant information on the app up to date.
“This app was developed in the DTES, by DTES residents, for DTES people,” Booth noted. “It’s also a great way to understand the realities of the Downtown Eastside.”
The pop-up cafés are meant to enhance digital literacy for residents – especially as Wi-Fi hotspots become more prevalent in the city, following the City of Vancouver Digital Strategy Plan.
The next step was to match area residents with opportunities to increase digital literacy – in other words, how to empower them to gain the skills to effectively use their devices and the app, despite limiting circumstances such as a lack of a data plan or limited Wi-Fi access.
Booth noted that community service providers find this app useful to direct clients in need.
“In fact,” he recalled, “in the app’s first iteration, we found that the providers were using the app more than the clients. Therefore, in the second version, we are hoping that even more clients will use the app, and are therefore going to the field with initiatives such as our pop-up cafés to find out what parts are most viable and useful to them.”
The development of the app was funded by an Innovation Grant from UBC’s Centre for Community Engaged Learning, an SFU research grant, and additional funding was secured through ImagineBC.
Meanwhile, community residents continue to attend the pop-up cafés, as devices get more complicated and correspondingly, more questions arise.
During a recent workshop, one older adult with a fixed income wanted to listen to internet radio on iTunes without having to pay for a subscription service.
Another attendee had difficulty transferring photos she had taken on a digital camera to her netbook in order to store them in a safe, secure place.
These are just a few questions that the ambassadors have been happy to answer. The sessions typically run for two hours in community spaces, and attendees can come in at will.
“I wish you guys came more often,” said one participant at a recent event held at the Continental Seniors’ Centre.
With each pop-up café, and with each attendee, the ambassadors are ensuring that those with lower computer literacy skills are given some critical tools to survive in an increasingly digital world.
We are grateful to the DTES Literacy Roundtable, a partner organization of Decoda Literacy Solutions, for their assistance in writing this article.
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