There’s no denying the importance of digital inclusion. A quick Google search reveals an abundance of reports and statistics concerning the issue. With the broadband quality and coverage improving every day, it’s an issue that will only grow in significance.
This initiative isn’t just about creating technologically savvy tenants; it’s about addressing the correlation between digital exclusion and social exclusion.It therefore falls clearly within a housing provider’s remit due to their responsibility to help improve the standards of living for their tenants.
Of course, it’s not just the tenants that stand to gain. Getting tenants online can reduce housing providers’ operational costs by up to £1,000 per annum per resident by some estimations; it’s fair to say that digital inclusion is mutually beneficial for both parties.
On the surface it appears to be a problem that is simple to solve as the only necessary requirements are network access and internet-ready devices. In reality it’s an issue that requires a nuanced and well-planned solution.
Many housing providers have taken a rushed and somewhat simple approach to getting tenants online by merely fitting computers and installing broadband in tenants’ houses or breakout areas. To be fair, if the yardstick is whether tenants have the ability to access the internet then this method cannot be faulted.
However, the inherent role of housing providers means that this isn’t the case as their duty of care to tenants arguably extends to the realms of technology too.
For many tenants, the internet will be a completely new concept and a certain level of knowledge cannot be assumed. Questions as to whether it is up to the housing providers to provide more than just hardware, software and an internet connection are commonly discussed; should there be a complete package that includes both education and protection?
Once a means of getting online has been provided, it can be easy to view everything from then on as the tenant’s concern. But as with the other amenities and services that housing providers already provide, ultimately online access and services could remain their responsibility.
There are several methods that can be employed to ensure tenants are protected. These techniques can safeguard residents from internet threats as well as monitor the point of origin of computer activity for illegal or inappropriate content.
One tactic is to ensure computers are used solely for their correct purpose by providing thin clients to tenants rather than complete desktops. These clients rely on external servers for processing power and memory, all of which is controlled remotely. What this means is that housing providers can exert greater control over how the computer functions. They can tailor what residents can do on the devices, such as only providing a web browser for surfing the internet. Further benefits of this method lie in reduced cost as thin clients are much cheaper than desktop computers and all the client devices connected to the main server can be managed centrally.
Housing providers should also have a method of profiling users, ensuring each user has their own account complete with tailored security features. For example, younger residents shouldn’t be able to access the same types of sites as adults. This becomes of particular importance when computers are stationed in public breakout areas, where any number of different users could require access.
Residents can be profiled through login credentials, allowing security features to be personalised depending on user characteristics. In public areas these could be given out each time a user wishes to use the computer, or for domestic devices each resident could be given their credentials when the computer is installed.
These login details should then correspond to particular security features, such as content filter settings. Content filters are used to block inappropriate websites to ensure user safety, whether this is dangerous in the sense of offensive, age-sensitive or harmful to the computer itself in terms of malware and viruses. These filters can be regularly updated, particularly if outsourced to a third party who can proactively monitor and update the benchmarks.
The likes of anti-virus and anti-malware software also falls under the housing provider’s remit. Although there are clear benefits in this for the housing provider, such as lower maintenance costs due to fewer infected devices, there’s also a duty to the tenant.
This is certainly the case with an aggressive new strand of malware known as ‘ransomware’ which locks down computers, threatens police intervention and restricts access unless a fee is paid. As mentioned above, many residents will be naive and uneducated regarding internet threats and being infected with ransomware would cause distress and could cost money (if they were to pay the ransom).
Granted, advanced threats such as ransomware may be the exception but keeping up to date and protected from the latest online threats is an area that housing providers have a duty to keep on top of. Whether that’s outsourced to a third party or undertaken in-house, it should be made a priority and actively addressed.
Away from risks and threats, there are also simple measures that housing providers can take to make it easier for residents when they are online. Homepages and bookmarks should be set to key resources – such as www.gov.uk and its subsidiary pages. This easy access to key sites will become even more important in April 2013 when universal credit is planned to be introduced and rent payments made online.
The issue of digital inclusion has been on housing providers’ agendas for many years. However, rather than seeing it as a one-off task, it’s crucial that it is viewed as a continuous responsibility. If implemented correctly, duty of care can be extended to the digital realm without it being a drain on resources.
Andrew Henderson is the managing director of Lanway.