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Could Alexa End Loneliness? (Or could going digital help achieve better outcomes)

Could technology help you improve outcomes for your beneficiaries and improve your competitiveness?  

This month The North East Social Tech Fund launched a grant scheme to help charities and social enterprises in the North East and Tees Valley to explore digital technology and innovation.

We’ve been thinking for a while about how we make technology work for social good.  Traditionally the VCS has been cautious about on-line tools for support, with anxiety around governance, finance and safeguarding. Technology sounds costly, developing on-line services doesn’t seem like something you can do well with squeezed budgets and limited resources; but as the world becomes more and more digital, do those of us providing front line services, need to bite the bullet or risk being left behind?

In the Northern Inclusion Consortium, our partners are recognising the strength of online; the flexibility and access that this brings, and the competitiveness it brings to their services and have been taking steps to move some services on-line.

HumanKind for instance run DrinkCoach, a fully digital alcohol engagement tool, incorporating 3 core elements of 1) Alcohol use assessment, offering users information and confidential advice about their drinking 2) Online Coaching to risky drinkers, face-to-face via Skype and 3) An App to help users track and change their alcohol use and drinking patterns.

This was introduced to help engage the growing number of people drinking at harmful and hazardous levels who are not engaging in treatment, either because of stigma of accessing mainstream provision or lack of safe drinking awareness.

Mental Health Concern provide some services on-line, including a CBT therapy programme; Sleepstation, online support for people who have difficulty getting to sleep or sleeping through the night and IESO, online therapy using direct SMS between service users and therapists

And Changing Lives are developing an online version of their 12 step model for recovery, that can be completed by people who are unable to come into our centres, they are developing client access to their client record system in York, to enable people to access and update their recovery plan at any time, as well as developing some online psycho-social interventions.

And it makes sense. A large number of us do most things on-line now, book train tickets, buy our groceries, pay our bills, catch up with our family. Digital is the norm. But when it comes to the wide offer of support and activities provided by our voluntary sector we can find ourselves waiting for opening times, trying to book on the phone or searching for a calendar in a community centre.

There are so many areas of front line delivery that could be strengthened through digital and on-line services.  We know the nature of youth services has changed for instance.  Young people are less likely to want to access a youth club, but spend more and more time on-line.  So if we want to reach young people and they are not coming to us, do we need to go to them, and does going to them mean virtually?

Another area we might want to look to, is in elderly care and social isolation. I met an elderly lady called Jean the other week who explained how she was really enjoying her Alexa. She said it was someone to talk to.  We know the social and economic impact of loneliness is huge. But what if Alexa and technology like it could be harnessed for good?  Could Artificial Intelligence link people like Jean up to real life support, volunteers at the other end of an Alexa or to other people who are isolated?  There are always risks with technology but in the face of such society changing solutions, it seems logical to begin to expand and explore how we can make technology work for us and work for the good of people and our communities.

And the good news is, if there’s an area of your work, you feel technology could strengthen, there is help and funding available to explore this.  The North East Social Tech Fund pilot programme will provide small Innovation grants to successful organisations, who’ll also receive dedicated hands on support from the Digital Catapult North East Tees Valley’s expert teams.

The deadline for this first open call for applications is 22nd November 2019. So why not take this first step in exploring what you could do to take some of your services on-line?

Info about the fund and application form here..

If you have some thoughts or are doing interesting stuff in this field, also don’t hesitate to get in touch.

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