A groundbreaking initiative in Sunderland is facilitating the deployment of 22 Community Digital Health Hubs.

These hubs aim to bring people together, addressing digital challenges such as restricted connectivity, insufficient access to digital devices and skills, and the financial barriers associated with online engagement.

The project has secured a significant investment of £581,893 from the UK Government through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF), a central pillar of the Government’s Levelling Up agenda. 

The initiative aims to address digital exclusion by providing ‘doorstep’ digital services at the heart of communities to help people, from taking their first steps online to thriving in a digital world. 

The project is a collaborative effort between the Council’s Smart City Joint Venture, a partnership with leading neutral host provider Boldyn Networks, British Esports Federation and 22 trusted community partners. The initiative forms part of a wider scheme, Links for Life, which was recently launched across Sunderland to empower communities to improve their physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Each Hub has digital support packages to equip individuals with the skills and kit they need to get online and stay connected. Whether that’s accessing the internet or digital devices, providing a person to talk to or introducing individuals to the benefits of navigating the internet safely, such as saving money, booking appointments and reporting problems. 

Ensuring the city’s most vulnerable people can stay connected, the investment has been used to provide:

  • Free Wi-Fi:  Existing Wi-Fi systems have been replaced with new architecture to ensure greater coverage and performance. 
  • Digital Devices: Each Hub received a budget to purchase digital devices for residents, if they don’t have their own, to enable internet access.  
  • Free Data: Some Hubs act as a Databank, which works like a foodbank, to provide free SIM cards to eligible people. 
  • Tech Mates: Residents can receive support from local volunteers who have been upskilled as Tech Mates. Tech Mates will be ready to help out, build confidence and share their digital learning and skills with others. 
  • Boost Online Skills: Each Hub not only offers free access to Wi-Fi and devices, they provide basic digital skills support and encourage progression by signposting people onto learning platforms like Learn My Way, or into local training providers.
  • Device Donation Hubs: Some of the Hubs have signed up with a local business, Born Good, to support people to donate devices. Data will be wiped clean, before either breaking down the devices for parts, or upcycling the device to be rehomed.
  • Community Esports Hubs: Five of the Hubs are receiving gaming kits to set up Community Esports Hubs. Working alongside the British Esports Federation and believed to be the first of its kind, the project will raise awareness about the gaming industry and encourage people of all ages into educational and employment pathways. 

Recent research indicates that 1 in 3 people in Sunderland have never been online or lack basic digital literacy skills. With an overarching aim of leaving no one and nowhere behind, Sunderland City Council is committed to improving digital inclusion for residents across the city.

Councillor Paul Stewart, Cabinet Secretary at Sunderland City Council, said: “Digital inclusion is essential for ensuring equal access to opportunities, services and information in today’s interconnected society. 

“The new Digital Health Hubs will boost confidence and digital skills, empowering residents to access more and better opportunities, actively participate in the economy and engage meaningfully in their communities.”

Liz St Louis, Director of Smart Cities at Sunderland City Council, said: “From the very start of our Smart City journey, we envisioned a future where the digital divide is addressed collaboratively, ensuring that no one and nowhere is left behind. Our Digital Inclusion Plan is ensuring that everyone in Sunderland, regardless of their age or situation can reap the opportunities afforded by digital. 

“The UKSPF investment and our partnership with Boldyn Networks has played a crucial role in providing the necessary infrastructure and digital inclusion services in the heart of Sunderland communities.”

Claire Venners, Director of Smart Places UK & Ireland at Boldyn Networks, added: “The Digital Health Hubs will make a difference to residents across Sunderland at a community level, leveraging the power of digital technology to enhance their health and wellbeing.

“Pivotal in promoting accessible, inclusive and technology-driven solutions for communities, the Digital Health Hubs aim to empower individuals across the city. By providing access to digital devices and the internet, we can ensure residents have the necessary tools and skills to make the most of digital health resources.”

To find your nearest Digital Health Hub and for more information, contact 07901 317 530, or visit www.sunderland.gov.uk/goonlinesunderland 

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