Signpost to a vast reservoir of advice for the young;FE Focus

13th March 1998 at 00:00
Martyn Lewis, the newscaster, is an enthusiast. "I have been in broadcasting for more than 30 years," he says "and I have never in my life come across anything as exciting."

Mr Lewis is describing the development of The Site, an Internet Web site he has played a key role in developing.

The Site aims to offer young people between the ages of 16 and 25 a central point of reference for finding jobs, researching educational opportunities and seeking help with a wide variety of other social, welfare and health issues.

Seven years ago Mr Lewis discovered that there was no single key listings book for young people seeking guidance from the plethora of help and welfare organisations in the United Kingdom. He resolved to fill the gap and wrote Go For It, a guide to some 600 of such organisations.

In the wake of this publication's success he realised that there were so many sources of help and information available in the country, that what was also needed was a database Web site offering much more comprehensive guidance and information.

As chairman of Drive for Youth, the charity which helps disaffected young people, he helped to set up YouthNet, a charity specifically created to design and administer such a Web site.

The Site has now been up and running in its present format since January 1997 and Mr Lewis's book is being renamed as The Book of The Site.

The Site itself is a rather stylishly designed signpost pointing young people to guidance, advice and sources of information in a variety of areas including drugs, health, education, volunteering opportunities, housing, money, sex, sport and work.

Designed by a small team of young people all under the age of 24, it has been crafted in such a way as to be fun, interesting, accessible, user-friendly and fast. It also includes an e-mail facility that allows readers to offer feedback on the site's design and content.

One design feature is that the postcodes of Britain have been electronically incorporated into the site's software. Users can key in their own post codes, the area they need help in, and the distance they are prepared to travel, and within seconds the site will offer a list of relevant organisations locally, regionally or nationally.

Mr Lewis says: "Every young person's life is shaped by the help and advice they are given in those early years of growing up. But too often that advice is based on the limited knowledge of the last (perhaps the only) person they spoke to.

"Many parents tackled by an enquiring teenager have difficulty knowing just where to begin. Even teachers and youth workers who specialise in such advice might offer contact details of three or four organisations in a particular field; they might not know perhaps 30 others, some much more appropriate to the inquirer's needs.

"The charity YouthNet was formed specifically to fill this gap - to remove the hit and miss element of that all-important early search for guidance" Before creating the site, YouthNet consulted a wide variety of youth organisations in a series of business breakfasts hosted by Marks amp; Spencer.

It received a pound;133,000 National Lottery grant to help set up the site and was given pound;500,000-worth of leading-edge computer software by companies such as IBM and Microsoft. Today it has a staff of seven and an annual budget of pound;370,000.

The Site also offers signposts to other database Web sites run by partner organisations such as Shelter, Centre Point and Citizens Advice Bureaus.

Companies such as Coca Cola, BT and the Halifax sponsor different services on the site, and the Walt Disney organisation has given YouthNet rent-free offices in Kensington village in west London.

At present the site offers access to the advice and guidance offered by some 14,500 organisations but over the next 18 months the intention is to expand this to some 200,000 organisations.

Such is the site's success that it is currently receiving some 50 e-mails a day from users, has a hit rate of around 40,000 a day and an access rate of some 1,500 unique Internet provider (UIP) addressees a day.

International interest in the site is such that YouthNet is currently advising the special adviser on IT to the US president, the European Union, the Irish government and the Nelson Mandela children's fund about setting up similar or related sites elsewhere in the world.

"We are talking about something which has the potential to be a world-wide information system," Mr Lewis says.

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