The Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised the digital divide between Britain’s haves and have-nots – and that’s why a social enterprise has been working hard to keep the country’s most vulnerable people connected.
SocialBox.Biz launched in 2014 to take old donated laptops from businesses and repurpose them with open-source software before passing them on to homeless people and asylum seekers.
It’s vital work that goes a long way to tackling digital poverty – with 1.9 million households living with no access to the internet in the UK, according to the Good Things Foundation – while also boosting sustainability by making the most of old tech destined for the scrap heap.
The social enterprise is the brainchild of Peter Paduh, who arrived in the UK from Bosnia aged 15 in 1993. The second-hand laptop that he received while he was living in shelters and with a foster family formed the foundation of his successful IT career.
But Peter didn’t forget his own journey and was keen to ensure that others who could not afford a new device did not become isolated or miss out on the chances he had.
The Covid-19 pandemic has seen soaring demand for SocialBox.Biz’s work. Peter told The Big Issue that the social enterprise has helped “hundreds of people” during the crisis, including helping elderly people connect to family through Age UK or to help homeless people connect with services from charities C4WS, Centrepoint and The Passage.
“I got help to buy a second-hand laptop – the battery didn’t work properly and it had one of those green monochrome screens but it really helped me change my life,” said Peter. “I learned so much from connecting a modem to it when the time came and I helped other kids and teachers at school with IT skills.
“I started working in IT and I wanted to make a difference. I started seeing all these old computers being replaced and I thought how I could use my skills to help. That gave me an extraordinary sense of purpose.
“We’ve helped hundreds of people during the lockdown, whether it be through Age UK, some of the homeless charities like The Passage, C4WS, Centrepoint. We get so many requests at the moment and we just want to help everybody.
“The problem has been around but the Covid-19 pandemic has emphasised it, especially for vulnerable groups like older people, refugees and homeless people. This really is a lifeline for them.”
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
Computer whiz Peter’s tech career started in childhood when he became an entrepreneur back in Bosnia at the age of 12. He harnessed his love of computer games on his Commodore 64 console to code the computer so it could run database software for small businesses to track their stock and sold it via mail order, even employing his dad to run the business.
His unaccompanied journey to the UK and that first second-hand laptop instilled a social purpose to his work and now it is being used to benefit Britain’s most vulnerable people at a time of great need.
And Peter is always on the lookout for new sectors to work with, including teaming up with the education sector to put old tech gathering dust in schools and universities to good use.
Peter said: “I remember an old computer magazine with a picture of old computers that asked what the solution was for them – I thought, I want to be the one to come up with that solution. Through my experience I wanted to give something back with my IT skills and business experience.
“C4WS help a lot of refugees who become homeless – loads of people have gone through that great offer, they stay in a shelter, they get accommodation and get a job. I spoke to a young boy with a similar story to mine who got a computer and ended up working for Pret. He returned the computer back to the charity so someone else could use it – I was so pleased to hear from him again and those stories keep us motivated to keep going.”
SocialBox.Biz’s work has been critical to allow C4WS’ workers keep in contact with their homeless clients while they are temporarily housed in hotels.
The face-to-face connection has been maintained thanks to the refurbished laptops, meaning that C4WS have been able to keep people engaged in their work to prepare people for employment or their programme to help those who have been newly housed to transition into independent living.
The charity has also been inspired to create activity packs with exercises and games to keep people connected and entertained while self-isolating in hotel rooms.
C4ws’s Sam Forsdike said: “We had to start working remotely and we were able to give everybody who was transferred to a hotel either a tablet or a laptop from Socialbox.biz. It was invaluable because it meant that we could still speak to them every day so we could continue working with them.
“That meant they were able to flag up things like they hadn’t had any food or needed clothing or their mental health was deteriorating. It also brought socialisation because they were confined to one room and not allowed to see anyone else and very worried about what was going. So being able to speak to people was huge.
“Without Socialbox.biz we wouldn’t have had any way to do this.”
SocialBox.Biz are not the only group taking aim at digital poverty – Good Things Foundation, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Mastercard and more have teamed up to launch the Leave Nobody in the Dark campaign to give one-on-one support and device to those in poverty hit hardest by the impact of Covid-19.