Information Poverty in Brentwood


Foreword

It’s getting near to 21:00, on a slightly breezy Friday night: with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band playing in the background.

I’ll probably change the record at some point: when the last track finishes.

Although, frankly? I might just put it on repeat.

Right now … ?

Right now, though, I’m staring at the blank screen of a desktop: trying to think how I say what I want to say.

Knowing what’s said is going to be read by people who aren’t my regular audience.

I’d better introduce myself, hadn’t I … ?

~≈†≈~

Introduction

Just so you know … ?

My name’s Paul and I’ve worked in various places in, and out, of Brentwood.

I’ve worked in a couple of pubs in town: and at a now-closed chicken restaurant …

I’ve also run pub quizzes.

I still do, in a way.

I wrote quizzes for the Brentwood Gazette …

And still write the Daily Teaser on my blog, Nik Nak’s Old Peculiar.

For about twelve years, since you ask.

I write about films and TV shows, and repeat all this for my YouTube channel.

It’s not a labour of love.

Rather, it’s something that lets me entertain people, gives me a way of airing my thoughts, met people across the planet* — even if it is just to answer silly questions — and something that gets me out of bed in the morning: and something I originally started, back when I was running pub quizzes.

Just as importantly?

Nik Nak’s Old Peculiar keeps me occupied.

Right at the moment … ?

Right at the moment, I’m unemployed: a job-hunter, government sign-writer, whatever euphemism grabs you.

Having something to keep myself occupied, whilst I’m not jobhunting? That also shows I’m computer literate, can punctuate and work to a deadline?

Helps.

Which is sort of why I’m here.

Because I’m unemployed.

But also extremely lucky.

~≈†≈~

The Situation.

I’m in luck.

Although my employment history’s been patchy, I’ve been able to afford an internet connection, and the monthly bills.

I’ve been able to afford a an internet connection, and computer to go with the connection: or have a desktop bought as a gift.

Yes, paying for that, on top of the rest of the bills, is a struggle.

But, as well as keeping me occupied, it’s helping me find work: accessing recruitment sites, email service, three government recruitment sites, various digital banking services, what have you.

To me, that’s a worthwhile investment.

Some of my friends and neighbours?

With or without families†?

Aren’t so fortunate.

They don’t have a computer, an internet connection: or a smart phone, in some cases.

Under normal circumstances, anywhere that offers an internet connection — libraries, coffee shops, wherever — helps.

Usually.

Then … ?

Then, in 2020, Covid-19 hit.

Hit non-essential work places.

Hit services: job centres, council offices, registry offices.

Hit libraries …

Suddenly, under Lockdown, those of us who rely on something as simple as the library to access the internet, and a computer?

Couldn’t.

Until Libraries‡ and job centres are fully open … ?

We can’t find work, or access benefits.

~≈†≈~

What’s supposed to happen?

In theory, those of us who are job hunting, could search online for jobs at Brentwood Job Centre.

The old Job Centre, at Railway Square? Had computers that we could use, if we needed to.

When the Job Centre shifted to its new offices in Brentwood Town Hall, the client facing computers had not — up until Lockdown — been activated.

I never found out why, exactly. But I got the impression there no particular rush to connect them.

Whatever the issues?

It wasn’t too much of a problem, prior to Lockdown.

Assuming we could afford the price of a drink, and had our own laptop, we could use a coffee shop or pub.

We could also use the Library’s internet connection and computers.

When Lockdown started?

That option shut off.

~≈†≈~

That … ?

Was something I ignored.

Whilst we don’t have to job hunt, under Lockdown? Having a computer, and access to the ’Net, meant I could carry on looking: filling in the online diary the Job Centre insists we complete, as I went.

I’ve had the odd benefit sanction in my time — which is another story — and I wanted to avoid another: if, after Lockdown, the Job Centre decided get funny about what we have or haven’t done, I can at least show I’ve been looking for work, applied to several vacancies, and even had an interview.

It wasn’t until I bumped into a jobhunting neighbour, I realised quite how lucky I was.

My neighbour — let’s call him Alan — is also out of work: and doesn’t have a laptop, an internet connection, or a smart phone.

So, of course, relied on the Library: both to job hunt, write emails, alter his CV, pay bills online, hell, check the football scores.

You name it, he did it.

Well … apart from join Facebook: I don’t think he’s joined Facebook. He’s possibly sensible.

At any rate, Alan, like other people I know, isn’t online at home.

So, the past few months?

He’s not been able to look for work.

He wants to: but, unlike the luckier ones amongst us?

Can’t.

That got me wondering.

If libraries, job centres, coffee shops are shut?

How do you get online? With lockdown being as strict as it was, it wasn’t like Alan could head over to mine.

~≈†≈~

I felt the only option for many people in Alan’s position — no computer or tablet, no internet connection, no smart phone — could be providing something many of us take for granted, would be difficult.

A computer/tablet at home.

An internet connection.

How the hell do we get that?

Let’s deal with the internet connection first, shall we?

One thing I did know?

Was that BT provides what it calls its ‘Basic plus Broadband’ deal.

£10.07 gets you a router, an internet connection, and a 15GB data limit: there’s better mobile deals, but they can be more expensive. And, let’s face it, phones screens are smaller than laptops

Something I wanted to find out was whether other providers offered similar deals: and whether they could also provide a tablet or laptop.

So I contacted Sky, Virgin, TalkTalk, EE and the Post Office.

Of those?

EE told me that their offerings included a £5 price cap on landline call changes for the vulnerable. That customers registered as vulnerable, got unlimited mobile calls, data and texts messages: but couldn’t match the BT Basic Broadband deal.

EE couldn’t provide prices.

But had given 1,000 prepay tablets to an organisation called the Good Things Foundation. There seems to be no client facing section on the Foundation’s site. Nor any way for those who need help to phone the Foundation. Their email address is no good.

You can’t email them to ask what help they can provide you … if you’re not online.

TalkTalk, on the other hand? Had made no charity donations. And, again, couldn’t match the BT offer.

But could at least, point me in the direction of their price. £21.50, with unlimited downloads, no connection fee or line rental.

Not as good as BT, but at least with a better download speed.

A spokesperson from the Post Office?

Told me I’d be contacted by their Home Broadband team.

As yet, I’ve had nothing further.

Sky and Virgin?

Sky and Virgin declined to comment.

~≈†≈~

The next thing?

Where to get a laptop, or tablet.

New would be nice, but refurbished would do.

From what I’ve seen?

Cheap though some of the laptops I’ve seen are, I ruled out buying one from Ebay and Amazon.

Online shopping isn’t easy when you’re not online.

And, if you have no savings to buy a cheap laptop? Buying one is out.

The same goes for buying from a shop like CeX.

There’s a few places in town that sell second hand computers: assuming you have the money.

So that’s not necessarily an option.

Charities?

I’ve found out that the BBC are asking for donation to their Make a Difference campaign.

This includes a link to charities aiming to bridge the Digital Divide.

Including the Good Things Foundation that EE had told me about, along side the associated FutureDotNow campaign.

BBC Essex also has been involved.

From the little I’ve seen?

Those charities aim to help get devices to vulnerable families with school-age children.

But if you’re like me or Alan, and others I know?

These charities don’t seem to offer a phone number: let alone help.

BBC Essex?

Doesn’t have anything on it’s page: beyond asking for information on how you can help, and providing an email address.

As I’ve said, these charities seem to be aiming their help at vulnerable families with children. Those children are the future: their educational needs both important, and a priority.

But, from what I can see … ?

There’s no charities out there aiming to help me, Alan, or anyone else in our shoes.

~≈†≈~

Skills.

There’s something else, as well.

Many moons ago … ? I completed what was then called a European Computer Driving License.

Basically, this was a computer literacy course: a multilevelled one.

The basic version?

Walked you through basic things.

From turning on a computer, how to use a mouse, what double clicking is.

To looking up stuff on the net, basic emailing, using simple software, like WordPad, a search engine, or MS Paint.

The intermediate version, the one I took in 2014? Covered slightly more complicated stuff: how to use the commoner MS Office apps, how to set up and use an email client, maybe how to use something like Zoom, or Skype.

The advanced version? I’m blowed if I know: but what I was told, at the time? It was something that covered advanced uses of Office, AND basic scripting: computer programming, if you want the old term.

These days?

I think the taking the intermediate course, again, would be handy for me.

I could show an employer that I’m familiar with the current version of Word.

I’ve one or two friends who’d uncomfortable with that, but fairly comfortable with the basic one.

Would be demanding the basic one, in fact.

I’ve met at least one person over the past year who would seriously want one. I met the chap concerned on a two week, voluntary, course the Job Centre put us on: aimed at teaching us basic jobhunting skills, letter/CV writing and interview technique. The chap ended up dropping out a week: as he’d signed up under the impression was a computer literacy course.

Which it wasn’t.

From what I could see, after talking things through with my work coach, my case worker at the Job Centre?

A computer literacy course — of any type — isn’t something the Job Centre would run.

The most they would do?

Is possibly pay for one I’ve found: assuming I found one I could attend^.

From the little I’ve picked up?

The same would apply for others.

We’d need to find one, and get funding.

We’d have no guarantee of being able to do the course.

Which is awkward.

As one old friend pointed out to me, a couple of days ago? Many jobs, these days, even the most physical, will need you to do the basic induction, and Health and Safety training, on a laptopª.

If you’re not comfortable with that … ?

Or haven’t had help learning how to use a laptop?

You’re in trouble.

~≈†≈~

In Summary.

What can I say, at the end? What conclusion can I draw … ? What can I tell you?

Possibly a lot.

There’s a few of us, out there, who need work.

Many of us have been furloughed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Chancellor’s recently announced schemes — aimed at making sure employers rehire furloughed staff, and hire unemployed youngsters — are good ideas.

To me, and others my age? Or who’ve been out of a job since before lockdown.

That’s not much help.

The schemes mean employers will prioritise furloughed and young workers first.

Employers will have an existing relationship with furloughed staff.

Younger staff? Are usually cheaper: and will get subsidised.

Unfortunately? That means employers have no incentive to hire us.

So, we have to make ourselves useful: showing that we can, if nothing else, do the basic training we need to do.

We need to keep ourselves occupied.

And … ?

And we need help to find jobs.

Yes: the Job Centre has told many of us there’s no need, because of Lockdown.

But I, and the few people I’ve talked to?

Frankly, we would prefer to keep hunting for work: knowing we need to fight our way to the front of the hiring queue, in order to stand a good chance of getting a job.

We need the basics to do that.

We need an internet connection, a computer, and the know-how to use them.

We need help to get those: help we’re not getting.

Right at the moment?

Right at the moment, if you’re a charity that can help the digitally lost?

I’d love to hear from you.

Paul.
Nik Nak’s Old Peculiar
12th July, 2020

* I cherish my three regulars. Debbi’s a recovering lawyer from Maryland: as well as a podcaster, YouTuber and New York Times best seller. Olga’s also a writer: a former forensic psychiatrist, current translator, and Barcelona based teacher. Trevor’s a rabid quiz fan, and seriously knowledgeable about IT: one who knows more about UNIX, than I do!

†        As of 8/7/2020, the BBC are promoting their Make a Difference campaign: asking is people have second hand computers or laptops they want to donate to families in need. You need to email your local BBC Radio station for details …

‡        I’m writing this section on 7th July, 2020: after what’s been called Super Saturday. Today, I went into town to see what’s happening with Brentwood Library. It, like fifteen other libraries across Essex, is open because it house a registry office, or so people can return or borrow books. As of today, we still cannot use the computers.

^        From what I could see? The ECDL course a local Adult education course provided, initially let you use its computers, and connection. You didn’t need to have your own laptop, as they let you use theirs. However, I’ve checked online, recently: you now can only do the course remotely. You need your own computer, and internet connection.

ª        The friend in question worked with me in KFC. And had been annoyed that he couldn’t complete the needed Health and Safety part of his training for more recent job: as the company’s software, didn’t work well with his smartphone. The various ‘Save’ buttons wouldn’t work.

Post Script. As a final thought, I know I’ve helped my youngest sister sell her old laptop: having wiped the hard drive. If you’re in a similar position, and having a laptop you don’t need? Please: feel free to wipe the main drive, reset the operating system … and donate, or cheaply sell, the thing to someone who needs it. Given a cheap connection? They’ll be able to job hunt with it. You’ll have recycled some technology. You both win.

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