Nine months since the government unveiled its social prescribing strategy to tackle loneliness, progress is still patchy. One in 20 adults in England feel lonely often or always, according to data from the Office for National Statistics. And two-thirds of disabled people report feeling lonely. Part of the problem is that efforts are being hampered by austerity: figures out this month showed that £7.7bn has been cut from adult social care budgets in England, and the number of daycare centres has fallen by more than 40% from 2010 levels.
Technology is already at the forefront of efforts to reduce loneliness, but the winners of this year’s Tech4Good awards, announced on Wednesday, show how innovative use of technology can improve access to cultural and leisure activities, which are an excellent way to bring people together.
When Simon Tew became leader of Nottingham’s Able Orchestra, working with physically disabled musicians using iPads and other technology to create music, he realised some participants were not able to join in fully, because they could not easily use a tablet or computer keyboard. Tew, a professional musician, designed a joystick device could be harnessed for music making. Designed like an electronic wheelchair controller, the Control One joystick, which interacts with music software. “The device enables people with restricted movement to perform complex musical phrases. They can compose and play independently, using the controller to switch between instruments, genres and tempos, or in groups by selecting different instruments to play collaboratively,” he says.
Jess Fisher, 20, the first musician to use Control One, says she loves the device. “It’s easy to use, because I already use one every day. The only difference is this one makes music and the other one gets me about.”
Initially conceived to help young musicians, Control One was funded by Arts Council England and Inspire Youth Arts. Now Tew, creative director of Digit Music, the company behind Control One – which won the accessibility category of the Tech4Good awards – plans to roll out the device to occupational therapists, music therapists and people working with dementia patients, and has already started helping adult musicians with disabilities.
Several shortlisted entries also focus on creative and leisure activities. The winner of the inclusive design award, National Theatre’s Smart Caption Glasses “listen” to what is being said, or sung, on stage, and turn it into text, which the glasses receive via wifi, allowing deaf theatregoers to follow the dialogue. Now 80% of performances provide the glasses.
Everyone Can provides bespoke gaming sessions to disabled people, improving confidence and social skills, while Ecoed Life is a gaming app that shows people how to reduce their environmental footprint, and the Inca project has devised an app to help those with language impairments such as aphasia to write poetry and prose.
Other standout entries include Safe and Found Online, winner of the ageing society category, which works with police forces to help locate missing older people faster; Beam, winner of the community impact award, which crowdfunds job training for homeless people; MeeTwo, the winner of the connected society award, a free, fully moderated, peer support mental health app for 11- to 23-year-olds; and Good Boost, which uses waterproof tablets and artificial intelligence to provide tailor-made aqua therapy sessions in 16 swimming pools across England for patients with musculoskeletal problems, for the same cost as a swim, with no waiting times.
But, for sheer inspiration, perhaps the most impressive entry is from Mihika Sharma, who, aged just five, came up with a design for a smart stick to help blind people cross the road. Her idea was so good that University College London helped her build a prototype. Now aged nine, Mihika’s stick has sensors to detect obstacles and puddles, and is connected to the person’s phone’s GPS system, so it can guide them to their destination, using right and left vibrations.
• Anna Bawden is deputy editor of Society Guardian and a Tech4Good judge