Vicki Hearn: Connecting communities through technology

The Nominet Trust director says there is a huge opportunity to use technology as a driver of positive social change

Vicki Hearn
Vicki Hearn

Technology has touched almost every aspect of our lives and, perhaps most importantly, it’s brought more people together than ever before. Although technology has previously suffered from a bit of an image problem – often characterised as something that was deepening the rift between the young and old, wealthy and less fortunate – today it is connecting people of all ages and backgrounds in ways that seemed unimaginable a decade ago.

Nevertheless, for all its benefits, there still remains a huge opportunity for technology to do more to drive further positive social change within local communities, particularly amongst minority and less-advantaged groups. There are countless initiatives across the UK focused on helping those who are under-privileged, elderly, physically disabled or living with mental health problems. What is often harder to address head-on is the resulting social isolation these groups face.

Managing the cost of loneliness and social isolation is becoming increasingly problematic for our public health services because of the related impact on physical and mental illnesses. Despite common misconceptions, loneliness is not limited to the elderly. A recent survey by Opinium found that 83 per cent of 18 to 34-year-olds are "always, often or sometimes" lonely. New technology can play a crucial role in tackling these issues.

Fortunately, a number of digital innovations focused on social isolation are already being developed by technology companies across the UK. Nominet Trust, the UK’s leading tech-for-good funder, is supporting a number of them. In September, Nominet Trust revealed the sixth round of projects from its Social Tech Seed funding programme and, once again, there were some incredibly imaginative uses of technology aimed at bringing minority groups closer – not just to each other, but to the wider community too.

For example, Ami is an online platform that has been created to enable volunteers to offer their time directly to people who are feeling socially isolated. From helping them with their shopping to simply having a face-to-face conversation, Ami is the perfect example of how technology is being used as a tool for people to support one another, connecting those willing to help with those in need.

Shift.ms, a previous recipient of Nominet Trust funding, is an online peer-to-peer platform that enables people who have multiple sclerosis to connect with each other. As with other disabilities, MS brings symptoms and emotions that are difficult for others to relate to. Shift.ms brings people together to share their stories, offer advice and help one another to cope with day-to-day tasks, both physically and mentally.

Another previous recipient of Nominet Trust funding is the award-winning Mind Of My Own. MOMO is an award-winning app that helps young people to express their views more clearly, get more involved in meetings and make better decisions with their social care teams. The app aims to help this particularly vulnerable group to build trust and confidence in the social care system, which are often lacking.

These are just three examples that showcase how technology is being used as a powerful force for global change at a local level. They also highlight how social enterprises can supplement the work charities are already doing, overcoming the skills and funding gaps charities often have when it comes to incorporating new innovations. The technology is being developed right here in the UK, and charities need to work with the UK’s tech-for-good ventures to drive social change. It is only by pooling efforts and working as a united force that we can hope to achieve a real step change in the way in which communities and individuals connect with each other, both online and in the physical world.

Vicki Hearn is director of Nominet Trust

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