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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 March 2007, 08:05 GMT
Sunderland wins digital challenge
Sunderland's 3G system
A mobile system offers respite to carers
A challenge issued by the UK government to find ways for technology to improve the lives of the socially excluded has been won by Sunderland City Council.

Sunderland's plans include a scheme to allow carers respite from their jobs and a video-conferencing system to benefit local charities.

Initially 79 councils submitted ideas for how technology could tackle the issues of social exclusion.

Nine finalists will receive 2m to realise their plans.

People first

Overall winner Sunderland will receive 3.5m to put its projects, which it hopes will eventually benefit 500 community groups, into action.

One of its schemes utilises the data network available on 3G mobile phones to link carers and the people they care for to a 24 hour contact centre.

The centre can track and monitor the cared-for person to allow the carer some time off.

Another scheme puts a desktop video conferencing system in the hands of local voluntary groups and refugees to talk to each other for free over the internet.

The system has proved particularly useful for asylum seekers - allowing them quick and cheap access to translators who may live outside of Sunderland.

Sunderland's Digital Challenge project
Schools link up to peers in Washington DC

It has also been used by schools in the Washington district of Sunderland to link up to schools in Washington DC in the US.

"We were particularly praised for the way we looked at what our communities needed. This isn't about a monolithic council telling people what they need. We didn't start with the technology," said Steve Williams, head of ICT at Sunderland City Council.

Angela Smith, the minister for Local e-Government believes Sunderland's projects will serve as a blueprint for others.

"Sunderland should be seen as an example of how the social and digital divide can be bridged. Digital inclusion is about more than new technologies. It is an opportunity to solve problems and improve the lives of people in our communities," she said.


The ten finalists will form a group called the DC-10 which it is envisaged will become exemplars in how to use digital technology to tackle social exclusion.

While they all offered different schemes, they also had plenty in common. Many of them pinpointed the need for real-life mentors to support groups that might not usually engage with technology.

In Ealing, the council is planning to set up virtual mentors to support disadvantaged children through the transition from primary to secondary school. The mentors will be available for live chats via online forums.

Norfolk county council is hoping that a new pilot scheme dubbed TextPal will provide a network of extra support and friendship for young carers in the county.

And in Manchester. trained advisers will target some of the city's most deprived areas to offer a range of services, such as advice on buying equipment, IT training and advice on how to use the web.

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