“Should anyone, anywhere, in 2022 have to justify why they need a computer?”
This is just one of the questions that Ross Cockburn, founder of local charity Reusing IT, considers in the course of his work. Reusing IT sources computers from businesses and organisations which are discarding them, and repurposes them for the benefit of a host of charities at home and abroad, or directly to people in need.
I caught up with Ross at the charity’s warehouse in East Calder, just as he got back from a humanitarian trip to Ukraine last month. It was his first to Ukraine, but one of many such in a mission stretching back over 20 years and covering several countries as well as the local area.
Reusing IT traces its roots to when Ross was an IT manager for a large company. The director wanted a batch of old computers out of the way. Not wanting to see perfectly good computers go to landfill, Ross phoned around to find a good cause which could use them. He found a small school in the Highlands involved in a project to donate computers to a charity in South Africa. That became his first African trip and would possibly have been the last; until a friend in London heard about it, and called him to say his company had 500 computers which were perfectly good but out of warranty and destined for landfill - could he use them?
This was the beginning of a path that has ended up as Ross’ full time occupation, and a charity making a significant difference to educational opportunities and digital exclusion right here at home, in several African countries, and most recently in Ukraine.
“We’ve been working with a charity in Ukraine which has been helping administer the huge exodus of people from the country. Of the 250 laptops we recently delivered, some have gone directly to families in Eastern Ukraine, and some are going to social services who are trying to keep people’s benefits and pensions going throughout the war,” explains Ross. He has a duty to the donors of the computers to ensure they are not falling into the wrong hands, as there is always a risk of corruption. “Wherever people are trying to do good, there are always some trying to sabotage and redirect aid for the wrong reasons,” says Ross. Every computer they send out is individually identified, logged and its destination carefully checked. As to the specifics of why someone may need a computer though – that question doesn’t really need to be asked.
“Digital exclusion is rife everywhere, more than we realise,” says Ross, “and even more than I realised right here locally until recently. The pandemic and lockdown, bringing the requirement to work and study from home, opened up a huge rift in accessibility to learning and education. Too many families were trying to manage either with one shared computer, or even no computer at all.
Reusing IT was initially approached by West Lothian Council around 10 years ago to donate computers to vulnerable families at the time Glow, the council’s online learning portal, was first implemented. School pupils access Glow to get their homework assignments and submit work. A swath of children who didn’t have access to a computer at home were immediately disadvantaged, and it remains an issue. With lockdown, the problem was exacerbated. Families with one computer had to prioritise who used it - maybe a parent needed it for work, or an oldest sibling for exam prep; in each case there was a member of the family excluded from accessing their education due to lack of a computer. “We worked frantically to try and make ensure every one had access to their own tablet or laptop, but it’s very much an ongoing challenge,” says Ross.
What keeps him going?
“A watershed moment for me was in 1999 when I met a small family in Kenya. I was there arranging a donation of computers to Sister Mary Colleen, a nun who was setting up schools so that local kids had a chance at an education.” A single mother and her two children, who were suffering growth deformities in their legs, were under the care of Sister Mary Colleen. The mother spoke a local dialect, neither Swahili nor English, and as a result had not been able to understand the doctor’s instructions for caring for her children’s injuries where they were treated following an arson attack at their home. “They had life-changing injuries as a result of their mother’s lack of access to education, or the opportunity to learn one of the main languages of the country. It had a profound effect on me. I will do whatever I can to help people anywhere access educational opportunities, in whatever form that takes.” The charity’s remit covers education, health and agriculture.
Ross grew up in Currie and now lives with his family in Mid Calder. The main storage facility for Reusing IT is in East Calder, where sorting, data-wiping, cleaning, recording, tracking and refurbishing all the computers that come is a massive operation run by volunteers. Besides the large warehouse, they also have several containers full of equipment, and an overflow storage warehouse in Paisley.
And still demand for their computers outstrips supply.
Can you help?
1) Reusing IT always needs volunteers to clean and sort the computers and components that come in. Tasks such as removing stickers that identify the donors, cleaning the computers and so on, are vital and no technical expertise is needed at all. If you can spare a little time to help out they will be delighted to hear from you.
2) They also need volunteers to collect donations. The equipment comes primarily from medium to large businesses and organisations which discard their computers once they are out of warranty. Volunteers are needed to take the van and collect them and take them to the East Calder depot.
3) Storage space! Reusing IT are bursting at the seams in terms of storage, and always need more. If you are involved in a company or organisation that could help out with storage, Ross would love to hear from you.
Volunteers who show a certain level of commitment to the charity are offered the opportunity to accompany Ross on overseas humanitarian trips if this is of interest to them.
For more information please see www.reusingit.org
Contact Ross at:
Email firstname.lastname@example.org M. 07786 560744 T. 01506 884061
Reusing IT, Units 9 and 10, Camps Industrial Estate, near East Calder, West Lothian, EH27 8BF. Charity registered in Scotland number SC037716
Published in Konect October 2022
Author: Helen-Jane Gisbourne