5 things we learned at the Charity Tech Conference 2019

Technology has the power to transform lives, which is why charities are embracing tech. AbilityNet spoke at the Charity Technology Conference 2019. 

AbilityNet's Adi Latif closed CivilSociety’s Charity Technology Conference 2019 in early November, a CPD-accredited conference with speakers and delegates from leading charities including Cancer Research UK (CRUK), Parkinson’s UK and the RSPB as well as AbilityNet.

Here are five things we learned while we were there including what to expect from tech in 2020, how the RSPB is using the power of birdsong to promote its cause, why accessibility is critical for charities, How CRUK learned lessons from failure and how the RNIB is embracing partnerships to promote accessible design

1. Virtual wives, 3d printing, and getting the basics right

The opening keynote saw Julie Dodd, director of digital transformation and communications, at Parkinson’s UK, looking at emerging trends for 2020. For Dodd, it’s less about technology and “more about society”. In Japan, as she showed us, lonely young men are turning to a holographic wife who answers to Alexa for company

Closer to home, Leeds City Council has launched Careview a mobile app that can be installed on the phones of frontline council workers. 

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Council workers simply tap the app if they see signs of loneliness when they’re out in the community such as closed curtains or the build-up of rubbish. The app builds a map of where loneliness seems more prevalent enabling the council to target social isolation

Others says Dodd, are exploring the role of 3D printing. For example, Open Bionics, which is using 3D printers to make prosthetics at a fraction of the cost of traditional methods. “An adult leg costs around £30,000 [but] these things can be printed for 30-40 quid,” said Dodd.

The Bristol-based company has also teamed up with Disney so children can have hero arms.

Elsewhere, companies are using 3D printers to create homes for refugees. 

AbilityNet’s Tech4Good Awards celebrate amazing people who use tech to transform lives

Dodd also mentioned the role of technology in enabling people to live at home for longer. Howz, for example, is working with EDF energy to distribute its home care kit.

The kit builds a pattern of how people interact in their homes; have they turned the kettle on, have they left the house? Is there anything different? 

It can raise an alert in the event of unusual activity. “It’s creating a care network without it being overwhelming, and can even look at energy and water use,” said Dodd. 

While the potential is exciting, Dodd warned about not overlooking basics such as getting the infrastructure right, which means “exploring the data mess [and] the plumbing not keeping up with the ambition.”

2. The power of Birdsong

The RSPB shared details of an innovative campaign to raise awareness of the environmental pressures facing birds, and other wildlife in the UK. 

The organisation made it its mission to get a single into the UK charts compiled only of birdsong. The resulting single Let Nature Sing was recorded with the help of a parabolic microphone. The RSPB spent three years recording birdsong from across the UK and then worked with artists to turn it into a single. 

The charity also recreated famous album covers featuring birds.

It made the single available on a variety of tech platforms as well as creating a CD. It came to the attention of Radio 1 DJ Nick Grimshaw who encouraged Diplo to ‘put a donk on it’.

Let Nature Sing charted at number 18 in the UK charts. 

3. Bringing accessibility to the fore

Accessibility was a hot topic throughout the day. 

The highlight was Accessibility and Usability Consultant Adi Latif’s closing plenary where he shared his personal journey and explained how bad design disables.

Adi spoke with trademark humour and passion and gave a number of demonstrations including using VoiceOver to use his mobile phone.

Yvonne Anderson, director, Mind Of My Own (winner of Tech4Good award 2018) credited AbilityNet with teaching her about the importance of accessibility. "Just as we have privacy by design so we should do this with accessibility. We should consider it [as if] we all have accessibility issues [and] build accessibility by design,” she said. 

Find out how AbilityNet can help organisations, including charities, get accessibility right the first time.

4. Learning lessons from failure: a case of Ben and the beanstalk

Ben Holt co-founded Beanstalk Ventures, a social impact innovation programme with backing from CRUK. Its aim was to “be disruptive” and to innovate faster to bridge “the gap between doing good, and being good at doing good.”

“We figured we could be quicker,” he said, explaining that the aim was to take a year setting up and within 5 years to be self-sustainable. In reality, Beanstalk lasted only a year. 

“We were running lo-Fi prototypes, and wanted to do it without asking permission.”

Beanstalk wanted to “play a convening role” and bring people together.

While the project arguably ‘failed’ he learned from it, and built valuable connections. “I have benefitted, and CRUK has benefitted, and I have connected with people I wouldn’t have otherwise,” he added. 

Another learning was not to go too fast for others within the organisation. “Every six weeks we went in talking [to CRUK] about something different, and it was overwhelming,” he said. 

Ultimately, he says it was the right thing for CRUK to kill it quickly’ “It [CRUK] had a choice, go all in or kill it, and they went for killing it; couldn’t absorb level of disruption. It was the right thing to do.” 

5. RNIB: building inclusivity through partnerships

The RNIB's Robin Spinks talked about how the charity has been working in partnership with technology companies and users. The charity recently attended a meeting with Google in the US. Google's keen to embrace inclusive design; so much so it has invesnted a new word 'includivating'. It is also working with a British company to ensure airport terminals are accessible, as this isn't mandated by UK law.

Read an interview with RNIB's Chair Eleanor Southwood, who is speaking at AbilityNet's TechShare Pro

It's also talking to Lego to create special bricks with braille.

The concept behind the LEGO Braille Bricks began in 2011, and the first p[rototypes are now being tested. The final LEGO Braille Bricks kit is expected to launch in 2020 and will contain approximately 250 bricks covering the alphabet, numbers 0-9, select maths symbols and inspiration for teaching and interactive games. 

The studs on the bricks represent the dots in braille and will also be fully compatible with other types of LEGO bricks. They will also have the letters and numbers printed on them so they're inclusive to sighted teachers, students and family members. 

Discover the world's first braille e-book reader, a former Tech4Good Winner

Elsewhere, a German manufacturer is working on delivering a washing machine that's accessible to blind people, while Amazon is working on a smart oven where you scan a barcode and it sets the oven for you. Speaking of Amazon, Spinks shared an anecdote about how the voice for Alexa was originally found by the RNIB. The RNIB was trying to find the best voice for text to speech and found a company in Poland and told amazon about it; amazon then acquired the company.

Amazon later invited RNIB to its HQ and unveiled the amazon Echo which happens to have that voice they had found.

How AbilityNet can help 

AbilityNet has a range of products and services that can help you make tech more accessible including consultancy, design reviews, auditing and user testing. 

AbilityNet provides a range of free services to help disabled people and older people.

Call our free Helpline. Our friendly, knowledgeable staff will discuss any kind of computer problem and do their best to come up with a solution. We’re open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm on 0800 269 545.

Arrange a home visit. We have a network of AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers who can help if you have technical issues with your computer systems. They can come to your home, or help you over the phone.

We have a range of factsheets which talk in detail about technology that might help you, which can be downloaded for free. You may find our factsheets talking about voice recognition and keyboard alternatives useful.

My Computer My Way. A free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones.