At first glance its looks much the same as any other commercial vehicle. To the people of Preston, though, it’s a 7.5 tonne lifeline jam-packed with some of the most up-to-date technology around.
Inside, it’s equipped with the latest 3G technology to allow access to the internet across the city. Coupled with a selection of desktop and laptop computers, a plasma screen TV and room for a dozen people, this mobile classroom is helping local people get online.
Called CitizenZone, its task is to visit people in the local community to provide IT and internet training session for people with limited or no previous skills.
The bus travels throughout the Preston area - from rural villages where there are issues of social isolation to Preston’s urban core, which faces high levels of deprivation.
Since it was introduced in 2012, more than 1,000 people have used Citizenzone to get online.
“We tend to start off by learning the basics of the internet, so how to get on the internet and how to search,” said Gemma Melling from Preston College who works on CitizenZone. “It helps give people a little bit of confidence.”
And sometimes that’s all people need. According to Gemma, the content of follow-up sessions depends on what people want to do. Some want to learn how to use Skype and email to contact family and friends.
John Turley, one of those making good use of CitizenZone, was keen to use the internet to book a holiday.
“I want to get with it,” said John. “I want to be modern. I don’t want to be left [behind] because of my age.”
For Raizmik Lohdi, getting online is so much more than just learning new skills.
“When you retire you haven’t got so much to do, so you find a way to get busy and this kind of thing really helps,” he said.
Indeed, CitizenZone has done such a good job that Preston City Council won the BT-sponsored Get IT Together category at this year’s 2012 Technology4Good awards. Organised by charity AbiltyNet, the award was created to honour the work of UK-based organisations that encourage and enable people to get online.
Councillor Matthew Brown, Preston City Council Cabinet member for Community Engagement and Equality, said:
“This award is testimony to both the need for IT training to be delivered in the community and the brilliant job that Preston City Council and the CitizenZone team are doing.”
“People are amazed at how easy it is to get started, once they get the help they need in a non-threatening environment. From setting up email accounts and getting the best utility deals to booking holidays and filling in online benefits’ forms, it’s a complete revelation to many and the beginning of a whole new journey – off the bus and onto the information superhighway.”
It goes without saying that those behind the initiative are extremely proud to have won the award. But it’s also true that they take even more pleasure by helping people get online .