Wester Hailes has less than 50 years of history which means that long term trends evolving gradually over decades are not always reflected in the events and level of change within the community. One area which is a definite exception to this is the fast paced development of computer technology and IT skills. So much has changed so quickly that it can feel like we’re remembering a long bygone era when we look back at the size, shape, capacity and use of computers in Wester Hailes only a couple of decades ago.
Back in 1981, the Sentinel reported that the WHEC had a suite of four APPLE II micro computers for public use. The micros had floppy disk drives, a printer and colour monitors. As well as offering bookable slots, the computers were also going to be used to run short courses, including practical sessions on BASIC programming and an introduction to computer graphics. You can read the article in full here.
By 1997, Wester Hailes was the first council estate to have an internet café, Cyberbytes, established by the Young Tenants Support Organisation. As well as offering local residents access to computer training, the café provided cheap access to the Internet. Although the Internet had been around since the late 1980s, it was still relatively difficult to engage with for many people particularly due to cost of use and a scarcity of computers within homes. The Sentinel devoted its centre pages in April 1997 to explaining more about the Internet and its potential uses and benefits for local residents.
IT skills became increasingly important as essential requirements for work, and training courses started to reflect this. In 2002, the new Learning Shop opened in the Shopping Centre and had 50 computers available for use. Courses on offer included word processing, databases, spreadsheets, presentation graphics and the internet.
So if the Sentinel had still been around today, what would it have been reporting technology wise? Perhaps the rise of the smart phone and tablets, the power of Google or the explosion in use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. Online communication is now a routine part of life for the majority. Whilst seeing images of now long outdated computers can make us realise how much has changed so quickly, the history of IT in Wester Hailes also shows the importance of trying to combat the digital divide. For although access to IT in the present day is now widely available, it is by no means universal. Digital exclusion still creates barriers and whilst sometimes this can be generational, the number of people facing digital exclusion is higher in areas where incomes are lower and more people are marginalised due to their circumstances. The provision of IT training over the years and facilities such as the Cyberbytes café was in recognition that people within Wester Hailes were in danger of being left behind with regard to computing experience and skills.
Combating digital exclusion is now more important than ever as access to services moves increasingly online. One of the current known facts about the new controversial benefits system Universal Credit, is that applications are to be made online. For applicants who do not have access to a computer within their home, this will mean they need to book a computer at their local library, Job Centre etc. If they are not confident in using IT, a 90 minute application process may prove daunting and in some cases impossible. Wester Hailes led the way across the years with initiatives such as the internet café and the Learning Shop. Hopefully with new projects and resources, local organisations will still be able to ensure people in Wester Hailes gain the skills and support they need to get online.