Meet the RVA team: David Neale, Digital Inclusion Development Worker

David joined RVA in 2013, and these days manages the Get Online project and works towards promoting better digital literacy and internet access throughout Reading. Although Reading has a generally highly qualified population there are significant demographics and geographical areas that have been left behind, where many people still don’t get the full benefit of the internet, and it is these people that the Get Online project is trying to reach. Among the project’s beneficiaries are older people, jobseekers and people with disabilities.

How has your role changed since the coronavirus outbreak?

The biggest change (which of course happened overnight) has been that we can no longer meet anyone face to face. The Get Online project has rapidly changed to a telephone support service, and I have been supporting other projects with activities such as creating a portal for RVA’s shopping volunteers.

I am now exploring new ways to help people in Reading use the internet while maintaining social distancing. We have conducted a survey and are now analysing the results, which will be presented at a videoconference entitled Let’s Get Reading Online on Tuesday 30 June 2.00-3.30pm. The conference will discuss ideas for developing Get Online and other topics such as making internet access more widely available for people in disadvantaged communities.

What has been the most challenging part of the changes over the last few months?

Get Online relied almost entirely on face-to-face support sessions. For now we have had to go to telephone support, which can be challenging when you can’t see the other person’s screen and requires a whole new set of communication skills. We now realise that working on an IT helpdesk isn’t as straightforward as we all thought!

There is a strong correlation between digital exclusion and poverty, and so many things that we take for granted in our everyday life are now mostly online – making applications, paying bills, finding information, accessing council services, shopping, banking and much more. With the lockdown the digital divide has become sharper – people without internet access often haven’t had any way to see their friends and family and have lost out even further.

On a personal level the challenges for me have probably been similar to those than many others have been experiencing – I miss the interaction that a Zoom videoconference just can’t completely replace, and an online social life just isn’t the same. I also organise events in my own community such as our annual street party that have had to be put on hold, and miss the buzz of these occasions.

Have there been any positives to lockdown for you?

For me two things come to mind – having a little more time for thought and seeing the amazing ways the voluntary sector has managed to overcome so many challenges in the last few weeks and continue to thrive.

As we start to look to a future shaped by coronavirus, are there things you are particularly concerned about or hopeful for?

I feel that I have been fortunate in many ways, but am seriously concerned for many that have been less fortunate, for whom things could well get worse. For example, there are whole industries, such as hospitality and a lot of retail, that have had to shut down during the coronavirus crisis, and jobs for many of the workers in these sectors are likely to be particularly precarious as these sectors are rapidly reshaped.

Two things stand out that give me hope for the future – there are signs of increased neighbourliness in adversity that I hope will continue well beyond the current crisis, and I hope many employers will be realising that their organisations can function just as well without everyone attending the office. More flexible working should increase job satisfaction and reduce the amount of necessary travel, improving wellbeing and our environment at the same time.