Technology Overcoming Rural Social Isolation

 

A couple of weeks ago I was working at a fabulous, inspirational event, the World Health Innovation Summit Fylde Coast (#WHISFC18) held at the Winter Gardens (above) in Blackpool. If you are not familiar with the umbrella body, the World Health Innovation Summit, check it out here, but, in summary, it is a rapidly growing movement of healthcare professionals and patients dedicated to putting people in control of improving their own health.

This is the first of a series of blog posts stimulated by the people I met and the initiatives I learned about at #WHISFC18.

Professor Nial Hayes is Professor of Information and Organisation at the University of Lancaster. As I was interviewing him for the video below, I became increasingly excited about what he was saying, as I recognised how it accorded with my own interests and ambitions. As part of an EU-funded project, Niall and colleagues have been developing an app called Mobile Age which aims to overcome social isolation among older people in rural South Cumbria. Here Niall talks about the principles behind this work.

 

I chatted further with Niall over lunch, and then he started to demonstrate the app, so I whipped out my camera and captured his explanation (see video below).

Mobile Age is a social connectedness app. It has been co-created with older residents of South Cumbria. At its core is open data about local events which people can use to plan their itinerary and ensure they can get out and about. It encompasses the ability to add events to a calendar as older people often enjoy constructing an agenda for the week and planning ahead.

Critical to the function of the app is an age-friendly map. This has been designed with clear lines which are more visible than some other mapping systems. The map shows benches, toilets (including available toilets within shops) and bus stops. This allows detailed journey planning to take place, including the ability to plan how to get to and from a venue before darkness falls.

Volunteering and educational opportunities are included, as well as links to vital services.

One of the key elements is the personal profile which allows the settings and itineraries to be saved. It also allows someone working remotely to add items into the profile, meaning that someone more tech savvy who is located distant from the user can help them populate their profile and plan their calendar.

I think this is a great initiative which deserves to be used more widely and replicated for use elsewhere. It epitomises my view that technology can be used to bring people together and to help them interact in the physical world, and that it is in no way de-personalising.

 

Technology-Enabled Nattering

Last week I went to interview an older man for a project about technology-enabled social care. We chatted for ages. Not much of it was relevant to my commission, but that was fine, I got enough footage for the project, and I was happy to talk. The gentleman had some fascinating stories to tell. One of those stories was about how his adopted son in Australia had bought him an iPad which he uses to “have a long natter” with him, over Skype, twice a week. He has been doing for years, originally using the “Friends and Family” discount option on the telephone, then via Skype on a laptop and now on his iPad. He was explicit that these interactions enhance his life. He also said that the technology-enabled care platform his carers use has made his life better because it means that carers who visit him have to stay for the full-allotted time, and that means they are more likely to chat with him.

I am becoming more and more convinced that technology-enabled nattering is the way to introduce older people to the benefits of new technologies. Many older people love to chat, but don’t have the opportunity to do so often enough. They love to chat, but they don’t love to type. Video conferencing is the way forward.

 

Serendipity Screens

In the last few years when I have talked to some people about my work getting older people to access the benefits of being online, a number of them have told me that older citizens do not take to social media. This may be true, in some cases, although I have seen quite a few examples of grandparents linking with their families through Facebook and WhatsApp. It could well be that fewer members of the older generation want to type or tap messages that do their younger counterparts, but there is something that many want to do more of, and that is talk. Could it be that the thing that makes social media attractive to time-poor younger generations, the ability to exchange messages very quickly and frequently, is the thing that puts off older citizens as they want deeper, more meaningful interactions.

Now, I know I am making a lot of sweeping generalisations here, but please bear with me. The other day someone was telling me about their mother who had been complaining to them that their father had discovered Skype. She complained that he spent every evening talking “rubbish” loudly to his two sisters in different parts of the country while she tried to watch television in the next room. At Digital Tea Parties and Connected Christmas events I have often found that Skype (or other video conferencing apps) are popular, partly because they don’t involve people with potentially arthritic fingers having to type, but also because they can be seen as a direct extension of the kinds of interaction people are used to having with those around them every day.

I have long railed against the idea that older people need to be taught to use utilitarian software of the kind that is common in offices. But maybe we need to go further and explore in-depth what more use of video conferencing can do. If people are at home and lonely, why can we not make use of “always on” video and audio connections to ensure they always have someone to talk to?

Which also brings me to the idea of “Serendipity Screens”. A couple of years ago now I heard a radio programme during which the manager of a chain of theatres in the United States talked about how they had interactive screens in the bars connected to each other. The idea was to get people talking to others in a different theatre, who were likely to be watching a completely different production, about their experiences and impressions of what they were seeing. I think this is a brilliant idea to get people who would otherwise not have a connection with each other talking and cross-fertilising ideas.

So, I am looking for partners and funding to explore how we can make more use of video conferencing to connect older people together. And to install “Serendipity Screens” in places like Day Centres and Sheltered Accommodation to get people talking to each other across geographical and cultural divides.

Please get in touch if you want to work with me on this.

Reflections on the (first) Digital Flu Clinic


So, yesterday was the Digital Flu clinic at Seascale Health Centre, in West Cumbria. 392 people came through the centre during the day to get their annual flu jabs. 40 of these signed up to access their health records online for the first time, and 20 or so of them came to see me to get advice on their digital lives.

And there is the rub, and it’s why we were doing this really. Getting nearly 400 people in one place on one day is a rare opportunity in such a sparsely populated part of the country. The fact that such a small proportion of them wanted advice on digital issues shows the scale of the challenge. And it was not because they were sorted for that kind of thing. I engaged a lot of people in conversation about use of the internet. The vast majority of them said things like “I don’t do the internet”, or “I am not interested in that kind of thing”. They were mainly older people, and most of them live in areas where both landline and mobile signals are poor. This is a combination of factors which combines to produce a lack of awareness of the benefits of being online. And, in the cases where connectivity is poor, even if they are willing, they probably won’t be able to pursue their interest.

But, we always knew this was not going to be easy. This event is the start of a process. The surgery wants to interact with people online, to help people manage their health through apps and online processes, and to cut down social isolation by connecting people together. I also met with Councillor Keith Hitchen who talked about the frustrations of carers having to travel long distances to meet and attend events. The traveling cuts into the respite time they have, and they often have to miss large parts of events because of the time it takes to get to and from the venue. Online events and other interactions would be so valuable in these instances.

So, there are a number of strands we will be pursuing in the coming weeks, including looking at ways of tackling connectivity issues, working out the most cost-effective ways of ensuring that people can get independent advice on their digital needs, and working with local organisations to upskill them in areas such as video-conferencing and streaming meetings.

I’ll leave the last word to the couple I talked to about their use of FaceTime. “Do you use it to talk to family abroad?” I asked them. “Yes, only last night we used it to see our newly-born 6th grandchild in Toronto” they said. Don’t you dare try to tell me (or them) that new technologies are de-humanising.

Digital Flu Clinic

This Saturday (7th October) I will be undertaking what I think is another first, a Digital Flu Clinic. What’s that, I hear you ask?

Well, I’ll be working with Seascale Health Centre in Cumbria to provide digital advice to the people who come to the Flu Clinic there this weekend. Like most parts of the health infrastructure, the Health Centre is keen to encourage its patients to take up online health services and use health apps. Many of its patients are older, and that applies particularly to those who are eligible for annual flu jabs. These patients are less likely to be using online services, particularly as broadband and mobile connectivity are poor in the area.

Seascale Health Centre covers an area of some 350 square miles which has a population only of around 5,500. 450 people are booked into the Flu Clinic, so this is a rare opportunity in such a sparsely populated area to get such a large group of people together in one place. And it is an added bonus that most of the 450 will be older people.

I am really looking forward to helping people to get to grips with the issues holding back their digital lives. Solving those issues will have much wider benefits in their lives than simply interacting with health services. I also think we have hit upon a concept that could be replicated elsewhere. Who else is up for a Digital Flu Clinic?

Connected Christmas 2017

It’s that time of year. The time to think about making sure no one need be lonely at Christmas (or at any other time).

This year I want to do a number of things, principally, help bring a digital element to older people’s Christmas Parties, as I did here. I need partners and funding to make this happen. Please get in touch  if you can help.

But beyond that, I also want to develop a central hub for people who are offering food and companionship to those who would otherwise spend their Christmas alone. Here’s a great example of that http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/kebab-shop-feeding-homeless-elderly-turkey-christmas-day-birmingham-classic-fish-a7487946.html. Can we collect examples and pledges like this, and put them all in one place?

Come on, please get on board. This year, we can end loneliness at Christmas (yes, I know we can’t but that shouldn’t stop us trying).

 

 

 

Housing Vote 2017

This is the start of the Campaign to get Social Housing tenants in the UK to register to vote and to be enabled to make informed choices at the General Election on June 8th 2017.

Social Housing providers are prone to complain that Government doesn’t understand them, despite the resources they invest in lobbying. And yet, large proportions of their 4 million tenants don’t vote. Let’s change this. Tenants voting and making informed decisions has to be the way forward.

Please see my video below launching the Campaign, there will be more to follow on this. In the meantime, please contribute your ideas for the Campaign in the comments below to add to these ideas already raised:

  • Social Housing providers to close their offices on Election Day and to deploy staff in helping tenants to get to the Polling Stations;
  • Organising Housing Hustings in venues accessible to tenants (and live-streaming them for those who cannot attend);
  • Displaying information on how to register to vote in Housing Offices and on Housing Websites;
  • Displaying information on where Polling Stations are in Housing Offices and on Housing Websites:

Please share this post and the YouTube video below to get the Campaign going, and use the hashtag #housingvote17 on social media. I have also started a Patreon page at https://www.patreon.com/johnpopham to raise money for the Campaign and other things I do in the future.

Friendships not Transactions

I need to get this off my chest.

I couldn’t possibly count the number of times people have given me the excuse for not pursuing digital transformation that recipients of services would miss the personal touch. Indeed I am repeatedly told that, for many the regular interaction with their care worker / housing officer / other professional is their only human contact.

I have 2 responses to this argument.

The first is, why are we not making more use of technology to reduce isolation and increase human contact? First priority in this for me is to assist people to use social networking to make new friends who they can subsequently meet in person. Second priority is to connect people together online, whether it be via social media sites, or via video conferencing.

My second response is this. What has our society come to if the only personal contact people have is with those who are paid to deliver a service to them? This is not right and it should not be used as an excuse for holding back progress. I refer you back to my first response for how we should be dealing with this. Let’s help people make and maintain real friendships, not rely on perfunctory transactions for a semblance of human warmth.

Here’s Paro the robot seal which has proven really good at connecting with older people.

Connected Christmas… and Every Day

Loneliness and isolation are killers. There is increasing evidence of this. Indeed, research suggests that loneliness is more deadly than smoking 15 cigarettes a day or obesity. For the past 4 years, I have been working to address the situation by ensuring that older people can be introduced to new technologies in ways which are engaging and which demonstrate to them their usefulness to their lives, particularly how they can enable them to communicate with friends, family, professionals and support networks. And yes, I know that digital contact can be no substitute for face-to-face interaction, but, for people who have no interactions at all, it can certainly help them to build and maintain contacts that would not otherwise be available to them.

In an era when millions of us are keeping touch with our professional and personal networks online all the time, most of the people in greatest need of regular interaction are excluded from these benefits by their own lack of knowledge, unfounded fears, and the technophobia of the professionals who work with them. The work I have done over recent years with older people has clearly demonstrated that, if approached in the right way, their interest can be sparked, their fears can be overcome, and they can be guided on the path to regular online communication.

Every year at Christmas the media picks up on stories about people’s loneliness and isolation. Well, it’s quite a long time till Christmas 2017, but I am starting early on the road to making sure that by the time Christmas comes around, major inroads can be made to changing the situation of many lonely older people.

I am looking for partners to work with me on this strategy, and funders and sponsors able to help me make it happen. Much of what follows is recycled from an earlier post, which is still relevant, and which still forms the framework for my programme to end loneliness by digital means. This year it is going to happen. Contact me if you can contribute.

Digital Tea Parties

During the past four years I have run Digital Tea Parties in Leeds, TraffordWhitby, Calderdale, and London, and there are a number of others in the planning stage. Digital Tea Parties are a great way of introducing older people to new technologies in a non-threatening environment. They allow the focus to be put on human communications and individual and community interests, rather than shiny tech. They are a familiar environment, in trusted locations, and they offer opportunities for those with a degree of interest to take the lead in introducing their peers to new gadgets. It is important in my view not to try to force people to use technologies they are uncomfortable with at the outset. Seeing others like them having a go can overcome that “tech is not for people like me” prejudice that often acts as a barrier.

digitparty_leeds3

Providing Connectivity

I have worked with partners to connect up a number of sheltered housing complexes, provide free wifi throughout and run a number of digital tea party-type sessions to kickstart residents’ use of new technologies.

Relevant Content

I am convinced that one of the barriers to new technology adoption is that older people struggle to find content that is of interest to them. And, in addition to this, I believe that activities such as slumping in front of the television actually contribute to older people’s social isolation by disengaging them from the world around them. Work at Digital Tea Parties, particularly the reaction to the pub crawl video at Urmston, convinced me that people need content to engage with that is directly relevant to them, as I expanded on here.

I am also seeking funding to run this Seaside Recollections project in which I would tour seaside locations guided in real-time by older people in pursuit of their memories of childhood holidays.

digitparty_leeds4

Reminsences and recordings

I have conducted a number of video and audio interviews with older people. I believe this is an important thing to do for a number of reasons, namely;

  • it stimulates the older person’s memory
  • it breaks down some of the barriers to new technology adoption
  • it creates more content of interest to older people
  • it can change perceptions of older people by allowing them to present themselves as they were in their younger days
  • it contributes to project evaluation

Staff Digital Confidence

I am working on a number of initiatives to promote digital skills, confidence and fluency amongst staff working with older people. Funding has been very elusive for these, which is extremely disappointing, because I firmly believe that often staff act as gatekeepers, seeking to keep the older people away from technology because they are frightened of the consequences of letting them loose on it.

All of these are activities which can turn the tide in the battle to promote technology adoption among older people, and achieve the ultimate goal of breaking down loneliness and isolation. We need to roll these things out more widely and scale them up. If you can help, please let me know.

 

My vision for local, interactive, engaging TV

Merry Christmas. Just in case I don’t see you here again before the big day.

This is a vision. It won’t be popular with a lot of people. And even more will see it as impractical. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained…

I was an early adopter of Cable TV. In the early days of Cable TV in the UK we were promised community-oriented, local programming. It never materialised.

When Jeremy Hunt was Culture Secretary he proposed and funded local TV stations in a number of cities around the country. This would have been a great idea 15 years earlier when Cable TV was in its infancy in the UK. By the time it was introduced the internet, YouTube and cheap live streaming had happened. Jeremy Hunt’s local TV stations still exist, in large part, but they are hidebound by being tied to traditional production methods and expensive studio operations. This makes no sense at all in the second decade of the 21st Century. And those “local” TV stations cover the footprint of TV transmitters, which bear no relation to actual communities. They are far too big. Nobody relates to them.

In this decade there are a large number of people who make a living, some a very good living indeed, out of making YouTube videos. These tend to be “lifestyle”-oriented videos, largely aimed at young people.

My vision is of local, and I mean really local, internet-based “TV” operations using a mix of live and recorded video to keep people in touch with, and active in, their local communities. And these operations will be on the internet, using smartphones and cheap cameras to make their videos. As far as possible, they will encourage and train community members to produce and disseminate their own video content.

Legbourne Annual Fete 2012

I firmly believe that TV is one of the scourges of our age; encouraging people to be inactive, passive consumers of content, products, ideas and world views. For those who have fully embraced the world wide web it is truly an antidote to this, encouraging us to be more proactive, questioning, seeking out information, and creating content. And yes, I still believe this, despite the publicity about whether we all live in our own self-reinforcing social media bubble and about fake news. Making the video content people watch online, engaging, interactive, and relevant to their everyday lives could be transformative. I saw how people’s attention can be grabbed by material which is direct interest to them and their communities when I ran a Digital Christmas Party in Urmston.

This is a big ambition. But all good ideas start from a small base. Who wants to help me make it happen? Please get in touch.