The annual Nominet Trust 100 list celebrates the innovations that are transforming lives for the better and making social exclusion a thing of the past.
According to the latest figures, 12.6 million UK adults lack basic digital skills and 5.3 million have never been online. Only two thirds of disabled people have internet access, compared to 88% of the UK population as a whole, and a quarter of disabled adults have never been online. Researchpublished this month also found that nearly three quarters of people with disabilities experience problems accessing many websites. The question is whether the government’s long-awaited digital strategy will address these issues.
Yet digital technology can also provide the means for people with disabilities or physical and mental health conditions to lead more independent, fuller lives and participate in activities that would otherwise not be possible. More than a quarter of the entries to this year’s Nominet Trust 100 use technology to promote inclusion. This annual list identifies the most inspiring examples across the globe of technology used for social good, and is published on 14 December.
Several entrants focus on using communication to boost inclusion. The Open Voice Factory, for example, is the first open-source software providing communication aids. According to Joe Reddington, one of its co-founders, more than 30,000 people in the UK need a device to help them speak but at £2,000 cannot afford standard aids. “We produce a free web app that can be put on a much cheaper tablet that you might already have at home,” he says. The software – in the final stages of testing – allows family or carers to customise it with personal vocabulary, stories and in-jokes.
Hand Talk is an app that instantly translates text or audio into sign language with the help of a virtual interpreter, Hugo, so that deaf people can communicate in real time with anyone, anywhere. EVA Park, developed by the Stroke Association-funded EVA project at City University, London, creates a virtual reality environment that helps people with aphasia to communicate again. Disrupt Disability has also created an open-source platform. This allows wheelchairs to be tailor-made, using an online library of free designs for different components; many elements will be suitable for digital production, including 3D printing. Its founder, Rachael Wallach, who has impaired mobility, explains the thinking behind it: “My wheelchair has over 30 different elements that have been tailored to me,” she says. “But it cost £3,000. In a country like Laos, that’s six times the average annual salary, so it’s just not affordable.” The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 65 million people need a wheelchair, yet 80% – some 52 million – cannot afford a wheelchair or one customised to their needs.
Not all the Nominet Trust 100 entries are designed to make products more affordable. Dot Watch, described as the first braille smartwatch, provides social media, news and messages, and is due to go on sale in the UK next year with a price tag of around £2,500.
Pips are bluetooth-enabled, palm-sized buttons attached to walls and furniture. They emit beeps when pressed, to turn walking into a game, thereby helping children with no or partial sight to learn to walk confidently. Another movement entrant, Walk With Path, has developed two shoe products that reduce the risk of falls in vulnerable people. The first, Path Feel, is an insole that helps wearers with sensory deficit on the bottom of their feet, such as people with diabetes or multiple sclerosis, to feel the floor better by enhancing sensory perception of the environment, allowing them more confident movement. The second, Path Finder, is specially designed for Parkinson’s patients who suffer from freezing of gait, where they feel as if their feet suddenly become glued to the floor. A small device is attached to the shoe to prevent this sensation. Both products will be available in 2017.
Seven projects that make the top 100 focus on safety. They include Tootoot, a safeguarding app to allow pupils to report bullying anonymously and teachers to act on it more quickly. Health projects also feature prominently. Nightscout helps patients with type 1 diabetes to share glucose levels, while three products (MyBivy, Bravemind and SimSensei) focus on helping people with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Perhaps the most unusual entrant is the South West Open Youth Orchestra, the UK’s only disabled-led regional youth orchestra. Its founders, OpenUp Music in Bristol, have developed a range of digital instruments that can be played with any part of the body, including the eyes. “Being part of an orchestra is new to me. I love it, and feel a kind of freedom and belonging,” says Bradley Warwick, 21, who plays the clarion (which sounds like a digital organ) with his eyes.
“Disability should never be a barrier to enjoying music and getting involved.”The government says it is still working with industry on its digital strategy, which includes improving access to technology. “We are working hard to help people who can’t use online services independently get the support they need,” says Matt Hancock, the minister of state for digital and culture. “We have also announced plans to make training in basic digital skills free for adults in England who need it, and have set up the Council for Digital Inclusion which brings together leaders from business, charities and government to come up with innovative ways to help everyone get online.” But for now, too many barriers remain.
• A full list of the Nominet Trust 100 can be found at socialtech.org.uk
Nearest tube – Elephant & Castle underground station (Northern and Bakerloo lines).
Nearest Railway Station – Elephant & Castle
Buses from Elephant and Castle – ask bus driver for Burgess Park. Bus numbers: 12, 171, 148, 176, 68, 484, 42, 40, 45