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As the baby boom generation heads into retirement over the coming years, assistive technology will be one of the key trends of the 2020s and 2030s. However, this is an area of IT that has the potential to transform the lives of another part of society whose needs are too often overlooked – the disabled.
To this end, the UK government is running the Inclusive Technology Prize, a year-long initiative designed to uncover and showcase not only some of the UK’s brightest IT talent, but also bring to market applications and services that could improve the lives of disabled people all over the country.
The competition is backed by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Nesta, Innovate UK, law firm Irwin Mitchell and charity Leonard Cheshire Disability.
In March 2015, more than 200 applications were whittled down to 25, with each of those projects entitled to financial and tailored non-financial support to further their development plans. In June 2015, this number reduced to 10 finalists, all of which have received £10,000 and tailored non-financial support from Irwin Mitchell and Leonard Cheshire Disability to help develop and prototype their ideas further.
The final winner of the contest will be unveiled in March 2016 and will receive £50,000 to help bring their products to market.
But why is such a contest needed? Has there been a failure in the market to address this sector?
While it is true to say that the majority of people working in technology startups come from a privileged position in that they have mostly never had to deal with the challenges faced by a lot of disabled people, and therefore would not necessarily think to address their needs, the term market failure may be too strong.
Indeed, according to Justin Tomlinson, minister of state for disabled people, the opposite is the case.
“We are already getting great exposure for innovative technology and this stimulates that further,” he says.
“Because technology is advancing so quickly it has never been easier for people to turn an idea into reality. Technology allows people of all backgrounds to innovate and UK plc creates the opportunities to export that innovation.”
Tomlinson cites statistics produced by charity Scope that say disabled people in the UK have a combined spending power of £212bn, but above all, he says, pressing technology into service to improve people’s lives is “the right thing to do”, morally as well as financially.
Real world experience
Each project on the list of finalists comes from a team that either includes disabled people or has extensive experience in dealing with their needs.
“Each team had to display real tangible knowledge of disability issues and most teams included someone with a disability,” says Tomlinson.
Simon Howard, who developed a service called PlanHub, was prompted to do so by his brother Matt, who has cerebral palsy.
He hit on the idea for PlanHub a few years ago when Matt disappeared in Peterborough city centre on a shopping trip.
Thankfully he was found by a passer-by, but ignorant of Matt’s condition and needs, and unable to communicate with him, this person wasn’t able to help effectively or appropriately.
Howard developed the PlanHub platform as a direct result of this experience. The service uses a near field communication (NFC) chip on a bracelet, which links back to an online hub with information on the person.
“The NFC chip links to a page with information on what to do and what not to do in an emergency,” says Howard.
“Unlike a medic alert bracelet, which only tells you what is wrong, this tells you what isn’t wrong as well. For example, Matt has no medical conditions.”
But PlanHub is more than just an effective tool in a sudden crisis. In Matt’s case, it includes a number of handy apps, such as Patient Passport, which mirrors information held on him by the NHS, giving him instant access to important documents. It also includes My Wheelchair Diary, which allows him to book appointments with his occupational therapists or schedule repair and maintenance jobs on his wheelchair. More apps will be added in the future.
Because many disabled people have to manage and pay their carers and essentially function as a small business in their own right, PlanHub also includes a workflow management suite that lets Matt deal with his payroll and taxes.
AzuleJoe, pronounced “a-fo-lec-oy” from the Basque word for tile, also got its start within a family, in this case the family of Joe Reddington, whose younger brother Richard has severe cognitive, physical and behavioural issues and has never been able to speak.
Described as the world’s first open-source communication aid, AzuleJoe is an assistive communication software platform that can run on tablets, laptops and even Kindles, without installation or complex setups. Reddington said its unique selling point is that it is free at the point of delivery, open and easily transferrable.
At its core, the software gives those who cannot talk or read their own voice, using a page set of pictogram tiles. In this way, says Reddington, users can articulate simple concepts and communicate with family and carers – in some cases for the first time.
“Our focus is on making this easily and freely available on as many devices as possible,” Reddington tells Computer Weekly.
Making AzuleJoe available on consumer platforms such as IoS and Android was a key starting point because, according to Reddington, a standard augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device can cost up to £10,000, and there are only 8,000 of them in the UK. However, there are up to 23,000 people who could benefit from his software and many of them are on shoestring budgets.
“You’re talking about 23,000 people who cannot say what they want for dinner or tell the doctor where they are in pain,” he says.
Howard believes PlanHub could save the social care sector millions if rolled out effectively around the country.
“For me this is the start of something much bigger. These apps are making Matt’s life easier. I’d like them to make a lot more lives easier. Social care is very convoluted these days, so there are massive savings ahead,” he says.
Extending the benefits of such a project to as many people as possible sits at the core of another NFC project called How Do I?, developed at the Swiss Cottage School, Development and Research Centre in north London.
How Do I? teaches life skills to people with learning disabilities by linking NFC stickers, attached to household objects and appliances, to instructional videos. Activating the stickers plays a short video that explains something as simple as making a cup of tea or brushing your teeth.
“It’s a brilliant idea which is so obvious in hindsight, and it won’t just help a young person with learning difficulties, but maybe also someone with dementia,” says Tomlinson.
Alexandra Eavis, a governor at the school who has been heavily involved in the project, says How Do I? came about out of a need to improve on the teaching models it was using. “A lot of the kids with autism don’t tend to like social interaction, so the traditional teacher-student model isn’t always ideal,” she says.
The school had seen limited success using printed QR codes to link to videos on YouTube that students could watch at their own pace, over and over if needed, but found this was not necessarily an ideal situation as the paper-printed codes were not particularly robust and easily ruined by a spilled cup of tea.
Nevertheless, says Eavis, the children had responded well to the idea and many were happier with self-guided videos, so a decision was taken to forge ahead in a more rugged direction.
The Swiss Cottage School switched QR codes out for NFC stickers after using Samsung TecTiles on a different project. It is now using the technology to support 16 to 18-year-olds, many of them with conditions such as autism, transition towards a more independent lifestyle in young adulthood. Eavis says it has also helped parents feel more comfortable with letting their children go out into the world.
Just as PlanHub can be applied across the board, there are a number of other potential applications for How Do I?. Eavis has been exploring using the technology for similar purposes at refuges for women fleeing domestic violence, and says she sees NFC as an enabler to get people with learning difficulties into full-time employment.
For Simon Howard, the £12,000 PlanHub has already received from the contest just for being a finalist has been vital. The funding bought the wristband stock, paid for the construction and design of the website and helped smooth the process of setting up a young business.
“It’s about being able to draw in all the facilities that I couldn’t afford to do. PlanHub wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t for this,” he says.
While the grand prize will only have one winner, Justin Tomlinson hopes that more than one of the projects – maybe even all of them – will find outside backing in some way.
“These are brilliant ideas, all of which are obvious in hindsight,” he says. “Britain is great at innovating and utilising technology and this is a great market for us to lead on. There is an opportunity to scale up to sell further afield.”
“To have the support the programme offers, the funding to go off and develop something and to develop it into a commercial reality is invaluable,” adds Alexandra Eavis.
In Joe Reddington’s case, the relative ease of finding open-source developers and translators for a product that is simply a piece of software means AzuleJoe is available in Bulgaria, Portugal and even Tanzania.
As the only finalist to be operating on an open-source basis, Reddington is constantly looking for people to get involved and contribute to the project, writing code, designing icons, suggesting applications or translating it for more markets.
“The support has been absolutely vital. In our case we’ve been able to do code bounties. I could have spent months coding a new feature, but through Nesta we were able to offer a $500 code bounty to whoever could get the job done,” he says.
The full list of 10 finalists, who are exploring applications that include linking hearing loops for the deaf to tablets, a mobile app to connect Personal Care Budget recipients with support workers, a modular walking aid and affordable 3D-printed bionic hands, can be found online.
Read more about IT in social care
- The Welsh government publishes a five-year digital health and care strategy, which includes a citizens’ portal for patients to access their GP records.
- Building off providers’ knowledge of social media tools could lead to more collaborative care.
- A large number of clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) have decided to work together on their digital roadmaps for a paper-free NHS.