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Tech solutions tackle social isolation

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Harnessing the varied ways that technology can help bring people together

Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenge prizes that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions. We spotlight important social issues and incentivise people to help solve them. As part of this, we recently ran the Tech to Connect Challenge, which was all about supporting tech innovations from civil society organisations working to tackle social isolation.

The term ‘social isolation’ has become much more prominent in recent weeks as a result of the current health crisis.

The Challenge was launched back in June 2019 to find simple solutions that could make a real difference to people feeling isolated due to a wide range of reasons – from dealing with trauma to feeling held back by age, ethnicity, gender or sexuality.

Funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Tech to Connect was an England-wide competition to help build more connected communities. By offering tailored guidance and support to scale the most impactful solutions, we wanted to help civil society innovators to make a real difference.

The breadth of ideas put forward illustrated how social isolation can affect anyone, and also highlighted the range of ways that technology can be harnessed to tackle the issue:

  • Sharing memories to stimulate connections

People experiencing dementia can become isolated from those who are closest to them – Studio Meineck is tackling this through their Music Memory Box, a digital box which combines sensors, sentimental objects and photographs to link to songs, helping to unlock and recall memories in a simple and tactile way, facilitating communication and connection.

  • Virtual experiences to empower people

People with alternative learning styles, including autism, can sometimes miss out on certain experiences due to anxiety; to help address this, the What’s it Like? is developing a digital solution to enable people to access places and events virtually, prior to visiting in person, so that they can familiarise themselves with the sights and sounds.  

  • Utilising space to bring people together 

Retirement and care facilities have recreational rooms that can lie empty,   the Mirthy platform will help connect under-utilised communal spaces with engaging speakers and presenters, in order to bring together those looking for social interaction.

  • Facilitating in-person interactions

We often go about our daily lives surrounded by people, without actually engaging with anyone. The Chatty Café Scheme is a platform to encourage conversation by helping cafes across England to designate a Chatter & Natter table.

After a five-month period of tailored support to help the 10 finalists further develop their ideas, last month we named the winner of Tech to Connect as You Are Not Alone (YANA), an online platform aiming to be the world’s largest collaborative resource for survivors of sexual assault. YANA provides a safe space for people to access details of local shelters, lawyers and therapists, and procedures for reporting, leading to a more connected system of support for sexual assault survivors. Through reducing the silence and stigma around sexual assault, the YANA platform pre-emptively addresses the social isolation that survivors can often experience. 

Although the innovations developed through Tech to Connect were by no means put forwards or selected with the current implications of the coronavirus crisis in mind, some of the concepts will be particularly beneficial to people in even greater need over the coming weeks and months. This is true of YANA; as people across the world are in lockdown, activists and survivors are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse.

Hera Hussain, the founder of Chayn, the organisation behind YANA, explains: “Being forced to stay home with an abuser for long amounts of time can be a harrowing experience – and stress of any kind can act as a trigger for violence and coercion, putting survivors at an even greater risk.” YANA is now undergoing further development in order to respond to this growing need. For example, through a secure messaging app, the platform will also offer an online trauma group, where survivors can get remote support while face-to-face help is more difficult to access.

Tailoring technology to really benefit those people in greatest need feels more important now than ever. Of course, there are big differences between those of us using tech to navigate challenges to our daily lives and those people for whom tech offers a vital lifeline and essential support network. But there is no question that tech can make a major positive difference in connecting people facing a variety of difficulties.

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We are tracking information on online challenges, funding calls, and initiatives dedicated to tackling COVID-19. Sign up for our regular newsletters in the box below for all the latest on these and please share relevant details to colleagues and friends to help accelerate solutions.

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Nesta Challenges
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Nesta Challenges exists to design and run challenge prizes that help solve pressing problems that lack solutions.

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