Social housing providers are increasingly dependent on their residents having internet access. Yet with an estimated 11 million people with no or limited digital skills, this poses a significant challenge, particularly given that it tends to be older or less well-off people who lack these skills.
Embracing mobile technology as a way of engaging residents online should become central to any housing providers’ digital inclusion strategy.
It is estimated that 91% of adults use and own a mobile device and 63% use it as their main means of being online. On our own website, which receives 250,000 visitors a month, access by mobile devices has increased nearly five times faster than conventional computer access.
The surging popularity of tablets with both young and old means they are riding the technology trend of high performance at a more affordable cost. Without the need to understand operating systems and supporting software, tablets are intrinsically more accessible for older people – a valuable tool considering that 5.8 million of the 6.7 million people not using the internet are aged over 55 years.
After a decade of manufacturers making portable devices as small as possible, the smartphone and now the tablet have reversed the trend. For older people, larger keys and bigger screens are easier to use and being able to directly ‘touch’ the application, rather than having to use keys and pointing devices, can be much easier for them. People over 55 now account for a third of the tablet market, according to a recent YouGov survey.
Mobile devices can also help people take advantage of the internet access that supermarkets, cafes and libraries, to name but a few, now make available. With free Wi-Fi available in many supermarkets, for example, residents can access the internet while doing their weekly shop.
How are housing providers reacting to this mobile trend?
Affinity Sutton, with which we’ve been working on the Get Connected digital inclusion programmehas recognised that an increasing number of their 57,000 residents now interact with the organisation via smartphone or tablet and has made mobile digital access the basis of a new customer strategy.
Affinity has made its website more mobile-responsive and has launched a separate, mobile-enabled website for residents to view their rent balance, pay rent, access a benefits calculator and check available properties. In January 2013, 25% of visits to Affinity’s main website were from a mobile device; now, a year later, mobile devices account for 35% of visits – on top of a 20% growth in overall traffic. The aim now is to make the main website fully mobile-responsive by this autumn so residents can do everything they need to via their phone.
In the same way, Orbit, one of the partners in our digital champions network for housing, is developing a new website designed from the start to be mobile-ready. Orbit has also transferred the responsibility of social media enquiries to its customer service team, recognising that many people are using social media to interact with the organisation, and primarily through their smartphones.
Viridian Housing recently gave a free tablet and Wi-Fi access to some of their older residents who took part in their active online pilot project, and have a mobile app which allows residents to report any issues they have.
These are good examples, but there is still a real challenge for many housing providers to encourage residents’ internet skills. Much work is still needed to provide the sustained, local support needed to inspire lasting use of the internet.
If, as expected, mobile web browsing will overtake fixed internet access by 2015, maximising and utilising smartphone and tablet web usage among residents and staff will be a powerful weapon in housing providers’ digital inclusion armoury.
Dick Stroud is acting manager director of Digital Unite, whose Spring Online campaign takes place from 31 March – 4 April 2014.
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