The charity Age Concern aims to use a fleet of buses packed with technology to combat social exclusion and improve the IT skills of older people and their carers.
The charity has commissioned four "mobile technology units". One will be based in Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria; one in Leicester; one in North Derbyshire and one in Staffordshire. Each will be supported by a local Age Concern training centre, and the service will be free for the over 60s.
Ann Parr from the charity's training division, who was the project manager, hopes the service will help older people and their carers to learn new skills and communicate more effectively.
Parr also hopes the project will promote intergenerational mixing and boost feelings of independence among older people. "You can retain your independence longer on the Internet," she says. More able users will be encouraged to take qualifications such as the European computer driving licence (ECDL).
The charity hopes to get about 1,000 people a year using the buses over the next three years, although Parr believes there will be a lot more. Each bus contains a plasma screen and a training machine for giving presentations, as well as webcams, digital cameras, scanners and laser printers. There are 10 workstations in the Derbyshire bus and six on each of the other three buses, all running on Microsoft Windows XP and Office 2000.
All four buses are adapted for wheelchair access and boast special equipment such as large keyboards and screens. Internet access is enabled using GPRS (General Packet Radio Services).
The buses cost £78,000 each, modifying them cost £40,000 each and a further £50,000 of technology has been fitted into each one. "It is very high-tech stuff," says Parr.
The charity submitted a bid for government funding as part of the UK Online initiative in May 2000 after securing financial backing from Barclays Bank. "We were very lucky," says Parr. "They seemed to have the same commitment to making this happen as we did."
Barclays has pledged £286,000 to the project over three years. Other funding came from the UK Online fund and the charity is providing staff and other resources.
The buses were modified by engineering firm Cosbys, which Parr says was "magnificent". The hardware was provided by Teksys, which is also the managed service provider for the project. Both firms were recommended by the consultancy that worked on the project, Direct Support.
"It is going to be a tremendous success," says Parr, pointing to the "excellent" response the buses received at a recent showcase in Barrow. "It appeals to all backgrounds and income brackets," she says, adding that social isolation affects rich and poor alike and fuels depression, which is "one of the biggest killers of old people".
The project will be officially launched next month.