These days when we want to get the best price for something, we shop around for the best deal. When we want to look for the best deal for gas and electricity, we go online and look for the best price.

What happens, however, if we don’t have access to technology, the internet or online skills to help us do this? Andy Price, Affordable Warmth Team Co-ordinator at Changeworks, talks about what the organisation is doing to improve digital inclusion.

Being able to access computers and the internet is becoming more and more essential. New benefits applications, like Universal Credit, have to be completed online. Customers now often rely on internet banking or online shopping when they would previously have gone to a physical shop or bank. Society has changed and moved online – digital inclusion is about making sure people aren’t left behind. Everyone needs to have the same opportunities.

People who don’t have this access, who are digitally excluded, don’t have access to the same range of options. With energy, your gas and electricity, being able to go online means you can see your bills and estimates instantly. It means you can check your tariff, see how competitive it is and whether you should switch. Most of the best energy deals are only available online too. That’s not just in terms of price – often better contract terms are available online, like fixed term contracts. Signing up to schemes like the Warm Home Discount requires internet access, both to apply and to check if your supplier is part of the scheme.

There’s a massive amount of options available online, but people forget that not everyone has either access to them or the skills to be able to take advantage of them.

These aren’t just economic issues, but social as well. Energy costs is rarely a standalone issue, there are links to problems like housing and health. Digital inclusion can make a big difference across many aspects of someone’s life.

In 2014 Changeworks signed up to the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) digital charter. This is a commitment to helping as many people as possible to gain access to digital services. We’ve made this a particular focus in our Affordable Warmth team – most of our new projects have an explicit digital inclusion element to them.

Changeworks has 15 projects across Edinburgh, Lothians and the Highlands, helping to reduce people’s carbon footprints as well as their energy costs.

We run workshops and computer skills training to get people online, and provide advice for those who have access to make the most of it. We work with partners like housing associations and local authorities to provide opportunities for access, and make use of their resources. We also help people to get online by physically taking laptops and the internet to their homes!

We meet a very diverse range of people in a variety of situations. Working across Edinburgh, the Lothians and Highlands means we see everything from very isolated rural properties to very urban environments. Not every property is simple to heat either and some homes can have complicated heating systems, and that makes getting the right information even more complicated.

The work we do in helping people check their tariffs, contracts and suppliers can mean they make significant savings. One person, for example, was a disabled tenant in his 60s. He had never used the internet, and was getting large energy bills quarterly. Just a simple online check showed he was paying about double the average, and switching him reduced his bill by £250 a year. We helped him apply for the Warm Homes Discount, which gained him another £140 a year. In just 15 minutes on the phone, we had reduced his bills by £390 a year – that’s about 20 per cent of what he had been spending. We also gave him some advice on changes to low carbon behaviours, like reducing the temperature on his thermostat or washing machine, to cut down on wasted energy.

This is just one example among many. Digital inclusion is a large part of our work and will be a large part of our work into the future. By incorporating digital skills development into how we deliver our energy advice, we are giving people transferable digital skills that will help them across different areas of their lives. We’re always looking to develop how we can speak to people, improve our online resources, and open up new routes for client engagement and communications.

For more information about digital inclusion and our Affordable Warmth projects, contact the team by phone on 0131 555 4010 or by email.

- Andy

 Andy Price, Affordable Warmth Team Co-ordinator, Changeworks