Would a smart city project work in one of the most deprived areas of the UK? The answer is yes, we just had to rethink the whole concept and ensure it's built on the foundation of up-skill third sector alongside a robust community development program - it is owned and commissioned by Sandwell Council.
iSandwell is a digitalisation platform that blends smart thinking with physical community development. In relatility it is a citizen engagement program that’s issue is to improve people's awareness of how digital can empower people’s lives and economic development in the Sandwell borough.
This is an extensive project that reaches into a range of projects that sit under the iSandwell brand. Why? In order to collect the widest amount of consultation to drive the project and the wider digital agenda in Sandwell we knew that the way to do it was through engagement activities.
It is also very important to recognise that in order for a project like this to be successful in an area like Sandwell we need to be as frontline as possible and offering hands on engagement. This is why under the iSandwell banner we have a range of innovative citizen led projects.
iSandwell Accelerator: a fund and mentorship program to encourage local third to create civic tech projects or activities that use digital to make social change in Sandwell. The groups offered groups up to £2,500 along with tailored support to install a new skill base in the region.
We funded 5 projects with 23 applicants over all who were picked by an independent panel of community groups members. Among the winners included a hackathon to create a people’s policy app for visually impaired people, a community focus open data toolkit and a host of others.
Through these workshops participants are also driving the wider iSandwell agenda. By taking part in a series of activities information is collated into an evidence base and used as third sector consultation/information that is available on iSandwell.
iSandwell Digital Champions: the community consultation nucleus on digital needs in the region, these are a cohort of satellite volunteers who are citizens of Sandwell reporting on digital and social issues in the area. It is a community journalism program that depends on people creating digital content for the iSandwell project - we use this learning to influence our work, map social trends and gather community driven evidence.
Digital Champions have raised various important issues in Sandwell from ensuring young people have a say in influencing decisions, digital education in Sandwell schools from a parental point of view, how to protect your data on social media following the fallout of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal and much more - we currently have 157 iSandwell Digital Champions.
iSandwell Camp: an annual conference where by the community comes together and helps shape strategic direction around a theme that is important to iSandwell priorities. In the 2017 iSandwell Camp, 65 participants actually helped to shape how we would build the iSandwell project. This was facilitated as a hackathon that posed questions to the room and directed how the next stage of the project will be developed.
The 2018 iSandwell Camp, saw 53 people looking at how we can grow the Digital Champion agenda in the region. Some of the take outs from the day included using technology to connect news to Digital Champions such as WhatsApp, what trends are important to Digital Champions such as digital, employment, fiscal and leisure, Social media dominates and significant use for shopping, paying bills and travel.
iSandwell Lab: the newest attention of the wider project launched in October 2018. This is a safe space where local people can discuss ideas for social change in Sandwell on monthly topics that can lead to collaborative projects, campaigns and influence content for our Digital Champion network.
Over the coming months we will be bringing together the community to discuss issue that face themselves and the people they support such as Universal Credit to helping children to access free creative education such as coding.
“As the Minister for Digital it is of great interest to hear of the work that New Union and Sandwell Council are undertaking with regard to the iSandwell project. It is clear that in the future there will be renewed focus on connectivity and ‘smart cities’, particularly with the opportunities that the rollout of 5G presents. It is also very great to hear of the different elements within iSandwell which I hope will be able to cultivate digital talent and advance the digital agenda within the local area as well as delivering the five long term outcomes that have been set out.
A crucial part of the development of the digital agenda is the third sector. As both the private and public sectors upskill and develop their use of digital, so must the third sector to continue to achieve the great successes that organisations up and down the country achieve on a daily basis. In order to do that we must involve local communities and projects like iSandwell can help to perform that function.
I will be following the work of iSandwell very closely in the future and I look forward to hearing more about your achievements”
“iSandwell is very dear to me, not just because I am the local MP, but I’m the Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the former Minister who created the power of information task force which led to the creation of the Open Data Institute.
So I’ve looked at all of these projects, the work you are doing with the visually impaired community to create the digital charter, the work you are doing for digital exclusion with our Bangladeshi community, mapping out networks in Wednesbury and giving young people positive role models on social media.
All of it through what I think is a great initiative and I think the iSandwell Accelerator is something we should think about on a greater scale.
It’s great that with all these projects you are putting the citizen at the heart of policy, because I think digitisation is about emancipating people by giving them the power of their own lives and you are doing that with this project, so very many congratulations”