Restart Radio: Reusing laptops for digital inclusion with Mer-IT and Hackney Fixers

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As schools start to open again across the country, we revisit the incredible work that repairers are doing to get laptops in the hands of students. Two organisations that have been supporting the laptop reuse effort are Mer-IT and Hackney Fixers. We talk to Mercedes Oli and James Diamond from both of these groups, to find out how it’s going and what we can do to help. 

Déjà vu for consumers and hospital engineers

We start the show by reflecting an age-old story. We discuss renewed calls for the Right to Repair by farmers in the US. Three years on from John Deere’s promise for more access to independent repair, farmers are reporting nothing has happened. Diamond points out this is the ongoing problem of leaving it up to manufacturers to fix things. Rather, governments need to start legislating.

We discuss yet another lawsuit against Apple, this time in Italy. Euroconsumers has sued Apple for €60 million on behalf of customers who had to replace their batteries far too early. This lawsuit echoes others that Apple has faced elsewhere. But do these court cases work?

And finally, last year we discussed the need for better access to repair for biomedical engineers (“biomeds”), who keep hospitals running. This topic is especially pressing during the continuing pandemic, in relation to ventilators and more. Little progress has been made. U.S. PIRG released a new survey of biomeds which highlights the importance of this problem. 

London laptop reuse projects

We first talked to James Diamond about the work that Hackney Fixers had been doing refurbishing laptops to donate them to students that were in need last September. At the time, they were also working with the team at Mer-IT, an organisation co-founded by Mercedes Oli. Both Oli and Diamond tell us about the massive surge in donations that they received following the announcement of school closures in early January.

With this, came more repairing work to be done and the need for the London network of repairers to really join together. Drawing on their experience of repairing so many laptops, they share the most common fixes that they have seen.  

From devices to data – digital exclusion

Oli talks about why she, and co-founder Alex Inglis, originally started Mer-IT in 2013. She discusses her own frustrating experience of being digitally excluded and how it encouraged her to share her skills with others.

Oli’s story touches on the many different aspects of digital exclusion. Access to resources comes in different forms, whether it is the inability to afford an electronic device, a lack of digital skills, or data poverty. Last year, Ofcom estimated that 9% of households in the UK did not have a device suitable for working from home. This meant students and adults alike were left unable to work during lockdown. And it is not only schooling that is important for children’s development.

Oli points out that the gap in digital literacy only widens when children are not able to explore the digital world on their own – be this through online research, gaming, or talking with friends. 

We hear stories from both Diamond and Oli about how the work that they are doing has impacted those receiving donated laptops. These donations have meant that students are able to carry on their studies when they otherwise wouldn’t have been able. And Oli says that the expression of joy is palpable when she hands over the devices. 

How you can help promote digital access

As children go back to school and we draw closer to a lifting of lockdown measures, there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. Some children will still be learning from home and homework – unfortunately – never seems to end.

It is also still essential that we support the elderly in our communities and ensure that they can stay connected at this time.

If you are able to donate a device, check out Restart’s lists below for places to donate. And if not, there are other ways to get involved. For many devices, it is necessary to buy spare parts in order to fix them and this requires funding. If you are able to make a financial donation, then this would also go towards this essential work. 

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