Eight things I learned at the 2018 AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Ceremony

Profile photo of Marta ValleI was present at the 8th annual AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Ceremony, which took place just 10 days after I joined AbilityNet as an Accessibility and Usability Consultant - so a great opportunity to meet some of my colleagues from different locations and attend one of our major events!

The event was very successful and it was a pleasure to hear about the people and projects that are using digital technology to improve the lives of others and make the world a better place. In this post I've shared eight things I learned at the 2018 AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Ceremony:

1. Technology is changing lives

Liz Williams from BT mentioned this idea at the beginning of the ceremony. Reading the stories of the 35 amazing finalists on the Tech4Good Awards website convinced me that this is an amazing truth: technology is making life easier, safer and better for all of us. Finalists like Be My Eyes or TapSOS deserved a prize, and so I was pleased when they won, but as Liz said "...all our finalists are winners".

2. Young talent is mind-blowing

I was surprised to see young people in the reception area before the Awards Ceremony started. Before the event I had read about the finalists in the BT Young Pioneer Award category, but I hadn’t realised the finalists were THAT young. When the Awards Ceremony started I realised that these young people have extraordinary minds. I think it’s fair to say that we were all moved by Lewis Hine's story - the teenager that founded Friend Finder to bring together students that miss school due to long-term health conditions or disability. The team that won the 2018 BT Young Pioneer Award, Water Watcher, impressed us all from the stage when speaking about their project to reduce water wastage worldwide.

Kate Russell, Mark Walker and the 2018 BT Young Pioneer Award winners - Water Watcher

3. It’s not easy to be a judge

No thank you, I don’t want to be a part of the judging for next year. How can you choose the best project from each category, when all the finalists are so good? The Digital Volunteer of the Year Award and the Comic Relief Tech4Good for Africa Award are just two examples of extremely challenging categories to choose a stand-out winner from.

4. You can vote for your favourite by waving a glowstick

When I first saw them, I thought they were candies. ‘How unusual...’ I thought. But no, they were glowsticks and we used them to choose who we wanted to receive the Winner of Winners Award. We all enjoyed the opportunity to participate in the voting and there was much laughter.

5. You can win a trophy and give it away

Related to my previous point, Christian Erfurt from Be My Eyes won the Winner of Winners Award and surprised us all with an admirable gesture: he gave the trophy to Lewis Hine ‘for his important work with Friend Finder.’

6. ‘Rings don’t fall off to the floor’ at AbilityNet

I’m not sure if there’s an equivalent expression to this crazy Spanish idiom. If your rings don’t fall to the floor it means that you’re happy to do any task that might be considered minor, whatever your seniority. I didn’t see a single ring on the floor during all the event. Everybody was working with Mark Walker, the event organiser and also the Head of Marketing and Communications at AbilityNet, to make sure the event ran as smoothly as possible. Everyone pitched in, no matter the seniority, no matter the task. I’m pleased to work in such a collaborative environment.

The team representing AbilityNet at the 2018 Tech4Good Awards

7. Networking is better around a chocolate fountain

Gary Moore, the CEO of AbilityNet, mentioned the chocolate fountain whilst on stage, and in my opinion it was truly the star of the delicious catering that was on offer after the event. There’s no better way to start a conversation than by sharing your thoughts about the perfect fruit combination to dip into chocolate.

8. It’s such an amazing time!

Kate Russell, who hosted the awards alongside Mark Walker, said it's not often we hear a genuine good-news story about technology. On the day of the Awards Ceremony we heard not one, but thirty-five good-news stories about technology. Big names like Facebook and Microsoft are using artificial intelligence (AI) to improve accessibility for all users. Robotics is going to change the world, like the amazing Small Robot Company in the agri-tech industry. Digital skills are reaching people that had little access to technology before. The future is promising, and we’ll get another opportunity to reflect on this again as we follow our 10 winners post-win and look forward to the next AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards in 2019. Are you ready?

The 2018 AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards winners alongside presenters and judges

Find out more:

For more information about the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards and this year's winners read the official AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards winners announcement on our website.

You can read more about our 2018 winners and finalists in a feature on the Guardian website.

For other details about the Awards visit the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards website.

If you're feeling inspired to use your digital skills to transform the lives of other people then check out our current vacancies and volunteer opportunities.

Winners Announced for AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018

The power of technology to transform the lives disabled people was as a key theme as the winners of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018 were announced at the eighth annual awards ceremony in BT Centre, London.

This year’s winners included Be My Eyes, an accessibility app that uses a smartphone to connect blind people with sighted volunteers, TapSOS an app originally designed for the Deaf community that provides a non-verbal way of contacting the Emergency Services and WaytoB a navigation aid for people with learning disabilities.

the winners of the tech4good awrads 2018 were announced at a glittering ceremony at BT Centre in July 2018

The Tech4Good Awards are organised by AbilityNet and sponsored by BT and supported by charities and businesses including Lloyds Banking Group, Microsoft and Tech Trust. The judging panel includes experts from the BBC, tech industry, charity and government. These are the only awards to highlight the amazing people from charities, business and volunteers across who use digital technology to make the world a better place. Entry is free and open to any business, charity, individual or public body in the UK. 

The awards ceremony took place on 17 July at BT Centre, London, where more than 200 people came together to discover who won this year's Awards:

  • AbilityNet Accessibility Award: Be My Eyes
  • BT Connected Society Award: Small Robot Company
  • BT Young Pioneer Award: Water Watcher
  • Comic Relief Tech4Good for Africa Award: Unlocking Talent Through Technology
  • Community Impact Award: Mind of My Own (MOMO)
  • Digital Health Award: TapSOS
  • Digital Skills Award: Generation Code
  • Tech Volunteer of the Year Award: Anna Holland Smith
  • Tech4Good People’s Award: WaytoB
  • Tech4Good Special Award: Lewis Hine of Friend Finder
  • Winner of Winners Award: Be My Eyes

The Awards are organised by Mark Walker at AbilityNet, who is pictured below with BBC Click presenter Kate Russell, who hosts the event, Ian Caveney of BT and Ben Scott Robinson of the Small Robot Company, winners of the BT Connected Society Award 2018.

Small Robot Company won the BT Connected Society Award at AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2018

Mark said everyone was still buzzing after another amazing event:

“We've had another fantastic year, with so many inspiring stories from people who are using tech to make the world a better place. We had over 200 high-quality entries and our 35 finalists included big tech names such as Microsoft and Facebook, along with small charities, startups and lots of volunteers. 

"Our judging panel includes tech, charity and business experts from a huge range of organisations, including the BBC, BT, Comic Relief and Government. The standard was much higher than usual so they had a really tough time choosing the winners. 

“The Award Ceremony is such an uplifting event - it's wonderful to meet so many amazing people who are using their passion for technology to change the lives of other people. It's such a privilege to celebrate their success and help them share their stories to inspire others. Everyone at AbilityNet is so proud of the way the Tech4Good Awards has grown over the past eight years - and so grateful for the support we get from BT and all the other partners and supporters."

More details

Smartwatch app which helps people with a learning disability travel more independently makes finals of Tech4Good Awards

Tech4Good Accessibility Award finalist waytoB, founded by two students, has integrated a smartphone and smartwatch platform to help people with a learning disability navigate their environment more independently. It's currently being trialled in Ireland and is a finalist in this year's Tech4Good Awards, which celebrate the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

waytoB has been created so that a carer, friend or family member can add safe routes via a smartphone platform for a person with a learning disability. That person adds the routes with their smartphone and is then able to track the location, heart rate and battery life of the person with the learning disability. They also get notified of key journey events (e.g getting lost, stopping for longer than expected, showing high levels of anxiety, etc.).

The person who has a learning disability follows icon-based instructions on their watch to better navigate their environment, with the watch vibrating when there's a new instruction.

Universal Design principles

WaytoB has been designed to be as flexible and inclusive as possible, providing independence to everyone: people with learning disabilities including autism, the elderly, and people with physical, cognitive, visual and hearing impairments. The project started in 2014 as part of an innovation module in user-centered design at Trinity College, Dublin. From the very beginning, students Talita Holzer Saad and Robbie Fryers developed their solution with the principles of Universal Design in mind, to ensure it is accessible to every type of user. 

In 2015, Public Health England estimated that there were more than one million people with a learning disability in England alone. Often people with a learning disability rely on others for transport and assistance to access their community, so WaytoB has the potential to open up independence.

A spokesperson for WaytoB said: “A study conducted by IDS-TILDA (at Trinity College) found that the majority of people with a learning disability over the age of 40 that it spoke to are dependent upon others for transportation and access options - and that the need for such assistance was the greatest barrier to successfully participating in social activities."

Standard navigation apps not safe for everyone

waytoB ’s research has also shown tthat popular smartphone apps for wayfinding are not suitable for those with learning disabilities - both from a cognitive perspective, and from a safety aspect, ie walking while trying to follow a smartphone screen presents risks from traffic, crime, and others.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion for AbilityNet adds: “waytoB is a really innovative take on the satnav, that all-important guide most of us use every day. By combining smartphone and smartwatch features this is navigation with a twist – specifically designed to provide that extra help needed by users with a learning difficulty or disability.”

  • You can vote for waytoB in the AbilityNet Tech4Good People's Award here - which closes on 9 July.
  • Winners of the 8th AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards will be announced on 17 July in London.  

Tech4Good Accessibility Award: Microsoft Seeing AI app reaches the finals of AbilityNet competition

Microsoft’s Seeing AI app, which audibly explains what it sees in front a phone camera, is an amazing tool for blind people and has reached the finals of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Accessibility Award. Now in their eighth year the awards are supported by BT and celebrate some of the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

Microsoft Seeing AI used for seven million tasks  

Since launching in July 2017, the app has assisted blind and partially-sighted users in completing more than seven million tasks and has been downloaded by 200,000 users.

The app harnesses the power of Artificial Intelligence to open up the visual world and describe nearby scenes, people, food in supermarkets and more, with spoken audio. Its key features include real-time text reading, audio-based barcode locator and product-recogniser, face recognition and emotion/age/gender description, currency recognition, colour-recognition, audible light detector and handwriting reader.

Understand more about the Seeing AI app on the film below. 

The app can also describe inaccessible images in other apps, including Twitter, and WhatsApp. Additionally, Seeing AI allows users to teach the device to recognise instantly when friends and colleagues are visible.

It is still being developed and added to by Microsoft employees after being created at a company hackathon event in 2014 by three members of staff. 

Checking homework and being more productive at work

A spokesperson for Seeing AI said: “Blind students in school can now read inaccessible paper text which is not in braille or does not have a digital equivalent. Similarly, blind parents are reading books, checking the handwritten homework of their kids and notes from teachers. People are also using it to get more productive at their day jobs and be able to achieve much more during office hours.”

The app joins four other finalists in the Accessibility category of the awards, last year won by Bristol Braille Technology. Four out of five of the finalists in this category in 2018 have developed or used technology to help people who are blind or who have sight loss understand more of the world around them. 

Machine learning technology

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet, adds: “I'd like to thank Microsoft for bringing real cutting-edge machine learning to a group of users with such evident needs in this area. While none of the smarts within Seeing AI are solely or even primarily intended for blind users, it takes a company as acutely aware of the importance of accessibility as Microsoft to do such an excellent implementation that brings the best of AI to those who benefit most." Read Robin's full blog on Seeing AI, here


Sight enhancement for people with low vision reaches Tech4Good finals

New technologies for people with sight loss and those who are blind are a key theme in the finals of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Accessibility Award this year.

Four out of five finalists are using tech to offer people with sight loss more understanding of the visual world. GiveVision has developed what it calls ‘the next generation of low vision aids’.  Its first prototype - SightPlus - currently works as an advanced digital magnifier and a pair of binoculars, giving people with low vision the ability to see much more of their surroundings and in greater detail. In the video below, you'll hear from Libby Powell, Paralympian, on her experiences with the aid. 

The technology, which combines augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) headsets, has taken GiveVision - a company of software engineers, researchers and social entrepreneurs - to the finals of the 8th AbilityNet Tech4Good Accessibility Award. The awards are supported by BT and celebrate some of the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet, comments: “GiveVision takes the best of image enhancement technology and uses it to address the challenges faced by the many millions of people with a vision impairment worldwide.”

Over the last four years, the company has worked with hundreds of tester to refine and develop the vision aid. It says the most commonly sold sight aids are handheld magnifiers, which have limited fields of view and functionalities compared to SightPlus.

A spokesperson for GiveVision told AbilityNet: “The device enables testers to have their hands free, which drastically changes the way they can engage in an activity. For instance, imagine having to hold a monocular to watch a play for two hours. With the technology, users can also capture more visual information by adjusting the zoom, contrast or brightness."

Second incarnation is similar shape to glasses

The second incarnation of the product (shown below), currently due out next year is a more discreet option (note: launch date has moved to 2020 since this article was originally posted). It will use the same technology but be smaller and more slimline, similar to a pair of glasses.

Sight Plus mark 2 slimline glasses

The company is excited to be now embarking on a study with Moorfields Eye Hospital to test its device further. 

The importance of assistive technology

On the growing need for assistive technologies for people with sight loss, GiveVision explained: “Today an estimated 246 million (updated from 217 million) have moderate or severe sight impairments, and this number is predicted to double in the next three decades.

"The issue with sight conditions, such as Macular Degeneration or Diabetic Retinopathy is that there is no cure, or there is a limited treatment that can slow down the progression of a disease but doesn't restore the vision. Patients who are registered partially sighted or blind will have to rely on assistive technologies.

“While the use of a smartphone with accessibility features or applications has increased, our research and testing shows it’s more useful and desirable for some people, particularly older generations, to have a dedicated magnifying device,” they added.

Does the Rubik’s Cube really need to be Bluetooth? Inclusive design and the future of connected devices

From earbuds to adult toys, should even the Rubik’s Cube now be Bluetooth? Some of these products and devices are gimmicks and some are game-changers – but smarter devices mean more inclusion when it comes to people with disabilities.

LED Rubik's cube

With connectivity comes choice

Bluetooth connectivity is cheap and commonplace. Here’s an article explaining that even the smash hit Rubik's Cube from the 80s might now get Bluetooth connectivity. Firmly in the ‘gimmick’ camp, this version of the classic cube puzzle would enable your smartphone to know the exact orientation of its faces at any time and could coach you to the final solution. Cool, but not life-changing.

The bigger picture is that Bluetooth (or indeed wireless connectivity of all flavours  - and there are a few different types out there), is able to provide alternative ways of interacting with gadgets and appliances. And, choice is what it’s all about when it comes to inclusive design. Can’t see the fiddly buttons or tiny screen on your thermostat or the cryptic symbols on your dishwasher? Let the larger screen of a tablet or smartphone help by becoming an easy-to-use remote control.

For older people, or those with a disability, the ability to make semi-smart devices (such as thermostats, microwaves, bathroom scales - pictured, blood pressure or glucose monitors) more inclusive is not insignificant. We are increasingly able to connect such devices (via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth) to our smartphone. This can mean a larger display of a device that would otherwise be difficult to see; or the voicebox of a device that would otherwise be mute; or the remote control of a device that would otherwise be too fiddly to use.

Garmin smart scalesUsers are already demanding to be able to control the heating in their home from the comfort of their bed using an app on their phone. They want to be able to track their weight, heart rate or blood pressure over days and weeks and again it’s an app that does this and thus connectivity is required. It won’t be disabled people or the elderly that will be driving this agenda, but these communities will be benefiting from it disproportionately if a little bit of good practice in inclusive design is observed along the way.

Speech or screen – the choice is yours

Does all this mean that a smartphone or tablet are essential possessions for older or disabled users in order to feel included in a digital future? Not necessarily – but there’s no doubt that they are becoming more useful, affordable and smarter every day. Though simpler than a computer, there’s still a considerable learning curve and that might not be for everyone.

Enter the voice assistant. We’ve had the likes of Siri and the Google Assistant in our phones for several years, but smart speakers like the Amazon Echo are increasingly providing an even simpler alternative to the smartphone or tablet. I’ve written several articles on the versatile power of the voice assistant, so I won’t revisit the topic here. Suffice to say that, in the house at least, we now have an even easier way of connecting to all our Bluetooth and wireless devices and controlling them with intuitive voice commands.  As a blind person who is a power user when it comes to IT, but a complete novice when it comes to less inclusive devices, I can now say “Start a hot wash”, “Record Blue Planet” and “Turn the heat up and lower the lights”. Three cheers for a more connected, more inclusive, future.

A shout out for low-tech

I’ll finish off with a quick shout out for low-tech solutions. Having a hi-tech way of wirelessly interfacing with devices is indeed a game-changer in many cases. When it comes to getting cash out, for example, I long for the day when I can use the speech on my phone to interface with the ATM rather than relying on the honesty of complete strangers to choose options on my behalf and not then run off with my money. But sometimes, the simple low-tech option works just as well.

For example, for blind people, putting a couple of self-adhesive rubber bumps (available in packs for a few pence each) at the points around the washing machine dial that represent a hot and colour wash is an elegant solution. Similarly, putting an elastic band around the conditioner bottle to distinguish it from shampoo works a treat. There are hi-tech AI solutions that work as well, but let’s not forget simple adaptations along the way. An elastic band never needs charging after all, and a humble rubber bump still works when the wi-fi’s down…

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. He blogs regularly here


Tech4Good Accessibility Award 2018: Facebook reaches finals with Automatic Alt Text and image recognition features

More than one billion photos are shared on Facebook every day, and artificial intelligence is now making many more of those images accessible to Facebook users with the development of Automatic Alt Text.

Through research with the vision loss community, Facebook learned that for users of screen readers, who are blind or have vision loss, it wasn't straightforward to know what was in a photo that arrived in their News Feed. 

So in 2016, Facebook launched Automatic Alt Text (AAT) - a feature that uses object recognition technology to describe photos to people who are blind or who have low vision and use screen readers. And at the end of 2017, the social media platform also launched a Face Recognition tool that tells people using screen readers who appears in photos in their News Feed, even if they aren’t tagged (as long as that person has allowed this option in their settings).

Facebook labelling an image using Automatic Alt Text

Facebook’s efforts to make the social media platform more accessible to people who have sight loss and those who are blind has earned them a place in the finals of the Tech4Good Accessibility Award - with the winner announced at BT Centre on 17 July.

Now in their eighth year the awards are supported by BT and celebrate some of the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet commented: "In a popular social media platform like Facebook, it’s impossible to expect every user to add descriptions to their images. This smart use of AI gets around that problem and is a game changer for disabled users."

Using artificial intelligence and machine-learning for accessibility

AAT was developed by programming machines using AI and was updated and refined based on feedback from multiple rounds of user research. The system can currently detect more than one hundred concepts, such as the number of people in a photo, whether people are smiling and physical objects like a “car”, “tree”, “mountain”, and others. Currently, about 75% of photos on Facebook now have at least one image identified by AAT.

The platform's Face Recognition technology analyses the pixels in photos and videos, such as a user’s profile picture and photos and videos that the user has been tagged in, to calculate a unique number, which is called a template.  When photos and videos are uploaded to Facebook’s systems, those images are compared to the template to find matches.  With this technology, people using screen readers can know who appears in photos in their News Feed, even if they aren’t tagged.

Manual alt text

The traditional mechanism for describing photos to people with vision loss is the use of alt text. Traditionally, alt text requires that the content creator/ person who uploads an image include a secondary description (as well a written post) for each photo, which is then read by a screen reader.  This is time-consuming for the person posting and is also extremely uncommon as too many people don't know about the value of alt-text.

To address this challenge, Facebook created automatic tools powered by AI to describe photos on Facebook, which allow Facebook to dramatically increase the number of photos that have supplemental text descriptions. Facebook told Tech4Good judges that as it continues to improve its object and face recognition services, AAT and Face Recognition will continue to provide more descriptive narratives for visual content.

Vote now in the Tech4Good People's Award

The People’s Award is one of Tech4Good's most sought Awards because it is chosen by the public, voting online via Instagram, Twitter or on the tech4Good website.

Tech4Good Accessibility Award 2018: Be My Eyes harnesses the power of 1.5 million volunteers to help blind people in 150 countries

Vicky, a mum of three in Edinburgh has been blind since birth. Her husband Robbie has very limited vision. They mostly manage as a family independently. But Vicky says that sometimes she just needs someone with vision to help her with tasks such as matching her children's socks or in situations such as checking the expiration date of food in her fridge.

This is where Be My Eyes comes in. The free app, created by Hans Wiberg, has more than one and a half million volunteers who are available day and night via live video link to help a blind person in such instances. It's currently being used in 150 different countries with help provided in 180 different languages and is a finalist in this year's AbilityNet Tech4Good Accessibility Award.

"We live in a world that is poorly designed for people with visual impairments, and I believe that technology can help change that," says Alexander Hauerslev Jensen, community director at Be My Eyes.

"I believe that Be My Eyes is a very powerful tool as it can help people lead more independent lives. The simplicity and flexibility of Be My Eyes make it works so well for both our blind users and for our sighted volunteers, and I really believe that Be My Eyes harnesses the power of generosity, technology, and human connection. We hope to win the Tech4Good award 2018 so we can get a step closer to making the world more accessible for people with disabilities,” he adds. 

Now in their eighth year, the AbilityNet Tech4Good awards are supported by BT and celebrate some of the amazing people who use tech to help make the world a better place.

Connecting users to corporate customer service teams

The Be My Eyes team has recently launched a new feature called Specialized Help that enables companies to support disabled customers via video link. Microsoft is one of its first customers. Users can connect to the company’s (Microsoft) Disability Answer Desk and can get help with such tasks as setting up Microsoft Office or checking an internet connection, for example. This means the company becomes more accessible to blind and partially-sighted people.

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet says of the app: “Be My Eyes combines the smarts of your phone, crowdsourced help from around the world and pure simplicity to address the everyday needs of blind people that, as yet, no AI can reach. This is one to watch.”

This Microsoft Be My Eyes short film shows the amazing story behind this app:


AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards

The awards celebrate the technology innovations that are improving lives across society. Categories include the BT Connected Society Award, BT Young Pioneer Award and the Digital Skills Award, as well as the Accessibility Award. Winners across all categories will be announced on 17 July in London at BT Centre.

How can technology help people with Macular Degeneration?

It is Macular Disease Awareness week this week.  We wanted to explore how technology might be able to help you if you have this condition.

Commonly asked questions about macular disease and macular degeneration

x-ray of eyeball showing signs of macular diseaseMy Gran has macular disease and is struggling to order her shopping. What quick and easy changes could I make to help her out?

You might be surprised just how much you can do to change the settings on your computer just by making a few changes. A good start would be to go to our My Computer My Way website which provides step by step guides on how to customise Windows, Apple and Android computers, laptops and smartphones.

Hopefully that will help but if you are still having difficulties we have a network of volunteers who can help people in their own homes.

I can cope fairly well with using a computer but I struggle to cope with my correspondence.

There are definitely lots of options that can help. You can either scan letters in with a scanner and use Optical Character Recognition and text to speech to read it out to you, or you can use a device such as Readdesk to take a photo of the document and then have it read out to you. If you have a smartphone there are some really useful apps to consider using which will alow you to deal with correspondence and can also help with other aspects of your life.

My Dad is trying to finish a book of poetry off but can't really see the letters on a keyboard. What can help him?

hi-vis keyboardThere are lots of different types of keyboards available which could help people who are having dificulty seeing the keyboard. For example a larger keyboard with hi-vis stickers on it might be useful - these can be purchased from many different places including the RNIB shop.  You can even get large print wireless keyboard too, so this cuts down on the amount of wires everywhere.  Also don't forget that voice recognition is an easy alternative to using the keyboard, and you  can easily make the text easier to see on the screen.

Case Study: Harry and Helen go shopping again

Harry and his wife Helen are both very independent and enjoy going the local supermarket to get their groceries.  They need to find a useful way of being able to make shoppAmazon Echoing lists throughout the week so they can remember what to buy on a Friday morning which is their shopping morning.    They have just bought a Amazon Echo device as they like to listen to different music and radio stations.

One of our volunteers Lucy showed them both how to make lists on their Echo device and then getting Siri to read out the list to them when they are in the supermarket.

How can we help?

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

  • Call our free Helpline on 0800 269 545 and our friendly, knowledgeable staff will offer one-to-one help.
  • If you are in work your employer has a responsibility to make Reasonable Adjustments which include helping you with invisible illnesses. Find out more about how we help disabled in the workplace.
  • Arrange a home visit from one of our amazing AbilityNet ITCanHelp volunteers. 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 computers and vision impairment useful
  • My Computer My Way is our free interactive guide to all the accessibility features built into current desktops, laptops, tables and smartphones.

Talking to the internet – how to get millions of over 55s online

Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) show that 4.8m of over 55s are still offline - they represent 94% of the remaining people in the UK who have yet to go digital, according to the charity Ageing Better. Without concerted efforts, this group will increasingly miss out on essential online services, says the charity. Let’s talk about ‘the conversational internet’ and how it could help some of those people.

Digital made simple

Getting online is a challenge. For the digitally uninitiated (and even for those who are pretty savvy) It requires a level of knowledge about how to interact with technology that isn’t acquired overnight. It takes months if not years to be confident about what to do when an unfamiliar pop-up asks you an often worryingly obscure question, and even more digital nouse to trouble-shoot something on a computer or tablet when things go wrong.

While it’s no longer necessary to read an instruction manual to use a tablet or smartphone, or worry whether your tablet’s antivirus is up-to-date (or indeed if it even has one), anyone who has had to support a relative or friend in the early/on-going stages of initiation into the world of mobile tapping, swiping and scrolling will know that things are still far from simple.

Pictured: Amazon Echo Show, Echo and Echo Spot

Echo Show with screenAmazon Echo Echo spot

The conversational internet

What could be easier than natural, conversational speech as a way of interfacing with today’s diverse digital world? I’ve discussed voice assistants in several recent posts: how simply speaking to the air and getting useful information, being entertained and even performing sophisticated tasks is the next significant chapter in computing. Do check out these posts for the full picture on how natural language and 'ambient computing' (voice-first smart assistants which can live in a range of devices) will form a significant feature in all our digital futures:

The older, less digitally adept generation and those of all ages with disabilities may well benefit most from these advancements in more natural and conversational interactions with the digital world.

If some devices have screens then great – additional information or the face of a loved-one can be displayed, and people who are deaf will have spoken information presented visually. For those who can hear and speak, at the heart of these devices is the ability to communicate with them conversationally and with increasing flexibility. 

We’re certainly not anywhere near satisfying the toughest trial of AI – the Turing test – but we’re getting closer every week. In the meantime, government at all levels and companies of all sizes are focusing budgets and resources towards the future of the internet - a future where services delivered through the conversational internet may be even more significant than the standard digital delivery channels of today. Tapping has already exceeded clicking. Similarly, speaking will undoubtedly one day outstrip tapping as the main method in which most people conduct their digital lives.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet. Find more of his blogs here. 

If you'd like help getting online or would like an AbilityNet volunteer to help you get online, call 0800 269 454 or email enquiries@abilitynet.org.uk.