Getting laptops to people who are self-isolating

Hi everyone, I’m volunteering with my local Covid Mutual Aid group (Kensington and Chelsea) and we’re thinking about setting up a laptop exchange - taking donations and matching them with people who need them to enable social contact, or possibly also kids who need them for online learning.

I thought this would be a good place to check if anyone knows of existing schemes we could learn from, or even better schemes in London already offering a service like this. I’m also interested in the logistics - e.g. is it feasible to accept broken laptops and find someone who can repair them or do we need to ask for functioning/ newish ones? Finally, if any of you are based nearby and would like to get involved in organising this please get in touch!



Hi Tom,

Welcome to the community! Good to have you here.

It’s great to hear you’re thinking about a laptop exchange scheme. We’re keeping a list of these kinds of initiatives here:

In my area, @Rosalie_Heens is already coordinating one such project, which does involve repairing devices. Rosalie may be able to offer some experience here (though I’m aware is quite busy at the moment).

I know that @Lorna_Montgomery has also been thinking about setting up something similar in Bath.


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In terms of laptop triage, and reuse, we do have a number of experts in our community. But not many active on this forum. Perhaps @RestarToshi @Anne_Carlos @sami might have some suggestions there?

In our experience (e.g. for our laptop summer school), for reuse, you are better off trying to get bulk donations of the same machine, and create a workflow to check and prepare them for reuse. This could mean approaching large businesses or even your council. We can share the triage spreadsheet we created for this work, right @neil?

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Thanks @Janet @james - much appreciated. Would be great to hear from the others who were tagged if they have any thoughts or can point me towards other things to consider.

Hi Tom,

Great you’re planning to setup a laptop exchange. I know one initiative that does this in Ghent (Belgium). Although I’m not coordinating this initiative (as James mentioned), I’ll tell you what I know about it. :smile:

Repair Café Ghent launched a call on social media to donate broken laptops, tablets and smartphones, so they could repair them and give them to families with children for online learning or keeping contact with friends. The call was shared a lot and in one week more than 35 devices where collected.

The group has always had a strong link with the community building service of the city of Ghent. As far as I know, it’s the city service who organises the central collecting point and the dispatching of the devices to repairers and families. The repair café volunteers take care of the repairs.

To make sure the laptops etc go to families in need, they collaborate with city services for community building, with schools and with citizen’s solidarity initiatives who have contact with families in need and know where to find them. I think this is really a plus, because it’s not always easy for individuals to know where help is most needed.

You can find more on the initiative on their Facebook page. And @Datam is one of the volunteer repairers participating in this initiative. Maybe he can add extra information (or correct me if I said something wrong :face_with_hand_over_mouth:)

I wish you a lot of luck with your plans!


I agree bulk donations of the same machine is an efficient way forward. But how do we deal with making sure the operating systems are reset, licenses are in place (more to the point no “illegal software”) and that hard drives do not contain personal info or even dubious info?
Don’t want to sound negative as it is a great idea and having the same laptop type etc makes problem solving easier though I’d take any as RAM and HDD’scan be useful as spares / make ups for other machines.

I’ve some suggestions and questions:

How do we deal with backup and helping people who do not understand computers get to grips with them? May become onerous?

I’ve used Dell D630’s for 14+ years, mine still does all I need, word, excell, programming and video streaming (but perhaps not gaming!) and yes I have upgraded with 4GB RAM and an SDD. Still runs Win 7 with no problems but that’s because I need the XP emulator to run for some very old software :laughing and Win 10 will not run the XP emulator (wonder why?!?):

For our Repair Cafe I have had 7 all different laptops donated, all needing some sort of repair - mostly batteries, some needed clock batteries replacing (easy on the Dell, nightmare on others!) one had a dead keyboard.

For software I first clean up simply with Ccleaner, then remove any anti virus and install AVG as it’s free. If the machine has a valid Win7 or 8 license then I upgrade to WIn 10 and in doing so select the clean all files option to effectively start with a clean slate. There is a free legal Win 10 upgrade explained here:

It worked as of 3 weeks ago and I’ve done several laptops. Down side is it takes hours and hours to do but you do end up with WIn10 for home use with a legitimate digital license.

Some ramblings that may be of interest and thought?
Take care all

Thanks @Rosalie_Heens @Roger this is incredibly helpful. Some clear ideas/ actions I have:

  • Develop a protocol for what we do with donated laptops around deleting/ cleaning up/ reformatting. Very useful to know we might still be able to get free windows 10 upgrade
  • Build links with other local organisations and the council and use their expertise to find people in need
  • Find volunteers who can do repair/ reformatting etc.
  • Figure out safest way to collect and distribute donations
  • Do a big donations drive using social media etc.

I suspect it won’t be practical to try and source lots of the same laptops - if we get ones we can’t use/ fix then we probably just need to make sure we recycle them properly when things get back to usual.

@Roger I actually attended an interesting webinar on providing remote tech support yesterday. Zoom has a number of useful features for this including a screen share function which allows you to annotate the users screen (e.g. tell them where to click), as well as full remote control if needed (and obviously with permission)

Please do send over any other ideas! When I figure out what works I will write up what I learn to be shared with other Mutual Aid groups who might want to do something like this. Hopefully some of this can continue after the crisis also


It really depends how motivated your volunteers are for one-off jobs that could, as @Roger suggests above, take a long time. If they are motivated to take a half-day or a day per machine, then more “power to your elbow” (as they say here!). But if your volunteers are motivated by efficiency and reaching more people, you may want to put the energy in at the beginning to finding bulk donations. We’ve found it shockingly easy to get decommissioned kit before from institutions. (But then this was before the pandemic. One thing I do know is that official WEEE recycling has appeared to come to a standstill, and this could present an opportunity.)

Personally, I would be extremely cautious about this, given what I’ve read about the major security flaws with Zoom…


That is a very interesting direction. I will certainly have a think about this

The organisation delivering the webinar felt that this had been slightly overblown and that it’s quite easy to make the calls secure. They did say if people were working with clients who were unwilling to use Zoom there are options set up with privacy as key concern from the start. They also pointed to this Which article which I think is quite balanced on the subject.

I’m aligning with Janet here and not just about using Zoom. I for one would not entertain any system of remote access to fix someone’s computer. The risks of being accused of doing something are for me to high. In theory remote access is a great idea but in the real world there are flaws that could come back to bite you hard unless you really know who you are dealing with.

Talking someone through a problem is a better route but again it can be onerous. We are trying to help people help themselves by giving our skills and time freely, not providing a service with a warranty.

Here is a recording of the training session if anyone is interested. Ultimately if people need help they need help - I feel comfortable following best practice advice from a charity who specialise in support for vulnerable people. But I admit I have no background or experience in any of this and if I was doing this professionally it might be a different matter. Thanks so much for all the help!

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This can be a dangerous feature. Many of the Zoom features are great when used in a closed call with people you know (which from a brief look at the recording you shared seemed to be mostly the situation the Citizens Online’s training session was about). However if it’s an open call that anyone on the internet can join (even worse when you don’t set a password) then things can go badly awry. I was on such a Zoom call yesterday in which first juvenile and racist graffitis were posted over a screen sharing, most likely using this Annotate feature. These were then attributed to another legit participant starting a bit of mob vigilantism against that user in the Chat (most likely caused by the miscreant changing their nickname to that of a valid participant). This was then followed by sharing of a horrific and traumatic unlawful video (one or several users who joined for this purpose). (More on this specific incident in this blog post.)

So if you do an online session in which you do not know all the participants, lock down all the features the participants can use to contribute. Be ready to moderate at very short notice. Also you may want to consider what kind of support/counselling you can offer or is available afterwards to participants if things go badly wrong. This makes it much harder to work with unknown persons who have a genuine interest, but the risk is otherwise very high so it needs to be controlled to some extent.


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@Panda Your experience sounds horrendous - the Zoom best practices should be required reading - and practice - for anyone running a session - and I don’t see anything different from the guidelines for the other service I know (webex): that would probably be just as insecure/open to abuse if used in an insecure way. I’ve always been very wary of allowing dial-in calls because their voice connection doesn’t show a name - given the choice I’d require registration and voip/internet audio connection with no dial-in option because then the name always shows.

Thank you for your concern. It was indeed horrendous and I believe is now a matter under criminal investigation.

It’s a good requirement but it has some limits as you may not know personally all the persons who will be joining the call. Also it is helpful to disable the option, available in Zoom at least, to be able to change one’s name (basically the /nick of IRC) once in the call.

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