A council has ended a contract for the disposal of its used computers and plans to make the machines available to local residents, particularly the disadvantaged.
Details of the plans were revealed by Stephen Hilton, a panellist at the G2010 government IT conference. He leads work at Bristol City Council to enable many more local people to go online. Bristol is a founder member of the DC10 Plus network of local authorities and other organisations which are aiming to promote social inclusion through the use of technology.
During a discussion at G2010 on "The Internet and Social Inclusion", Hilton said that Bristol City Council has re-tendered what had been a contract for the disposal of its used computers. Seven companies are on a shortlist to make the council's used computers, between 900 and 1,200 machines, available to local communities and individuals.
The contract will be awarded on 20 November. Although the secure disposal of computers cost the council nothing in the past, officials may be willing to pay a supplier to make the equipment available for re-use.
Any cost will be offset by savings to the council - when, for example, residents get information online instead of ringing up Bristol City's switchboard.
Hilton said: "Our primary focus [at the council] is to make equipment available to communities and individuals."
Giving examples of the council's work to get more people online, he said that a TV room at a sheltered housing scheme has been turned into a computer suite. The room wasn't being used because people already had their own TVs.
"The council trained the warden to train the old people and the first thing they did was to start shopping [online] at Tesco's together. They only had to pay one delivery charge instead of eight separate ones."
He said that the council isn't trying to sell the internet to people: it is helping them do what they want to do: joining together families, investigating family histories, shopping, and taking an interest in particular issues.
"I look forward to the day that everybody in Bristol is connected, and everybody I meet and speak with through work I can contact online. I look forward to be able to wave to my Mum on a webcam and she can say 'Hello' to me on Twitter but we are a way from that.
"It is up to authorities, both government and local authorities, to show a lead here. We can do a lot: we can overcome some of the barriers to physical access; we can provide kit; we can help people get connected; we can provide training; we can, most importantly, help people produce content and not just be passive recipients of information we put out."
10 million people have never been online
He said that about 10 million people in the UK have never used a computer. "If you live in social or council housing you are less likely to be part of the connected world. Even two out of ten households where there are children in the family don't have access to computers. It is difficult to imagine how a child wouldn't be able to engage with technology."
Malcolm Watson, general manager of IT refurbishing specialist Remploy e-cycle, says that 90% of IT decision-makers don't appear to care whether their computers could be used again once their organisation has finished with them.
"The importance of re-using things is now well understood for many types of waste, both in the office and at home, yet for some reason IT equipment such as laptops, printers, mobile phones and PDAs seem to be treated differently.
"We believe vast amounts of IT waste are unnecessarily being recycled every year when it could easily be used again Once refurbished, machines can be sold, redeployed back into an organisation or donated to charity."
Video of "The Internet and Social Inclusion" panel, filmed at G2010