Lightbulb moment? How smarter homes, Alexa and the age of automation will help disabled people

 

My first hands-on use of connected devices has opened my eyes to the impact that smarter more connected homes will have on the lives of people with disabilities – as well as everyone else. Combining the new age of ambient computing represented by Alexa, Google Home and the soon-to-be-released Apple HomePod with smart, connected, devices offers a sense of independence that was sci-fi fantasy until a few short months ago.

What happens when you give Alexa the skills to affect the physical world?

Wasserstein smart home plugSmart, connected devices (also known as IOT or the ‘Internet of things’) are nothing new, but it took a first-hand experience to really drive home to me the impact these devices could have for people with disabilities.

I looked at a smart power plug that can be remotely turned on and off by your phone or Alexa, as well as a smart colourful lightbulb:

Setting up IOT devices involves a few steps and sometimes a little frustration.

Step 1 is to connect your phone to the devices by downloading the associated app and using it to create a temporary wi-fi network. You can then communicate with the devices - which have no screen or other interface - and give them permission to connect to the real wi-fi network in your home.

wasserstein smart bulbOnce this little dance is done (and it took a couple of attempts to enable it) then you can control the devices through the app. In the case of the smart bulb you can turn it on and off, change it to any number of colours (well, 16 million in fact), dim or brighten it and make it pulse like a disco light in time to music.

In the case of the smart plug it simply lets power through to the device that is plugged into it like a remote on-off switch. On the day of testing the news said it was hotter in Warwick than in in Marrakesh and Majorca - so we hooked up a fan.

The devices, once set up, were an absolute pleasure to use – if you can use the apps, that is.

Smart apps - but ignorant of accessibility

Both the apps needed to set up these devices (‘Magic Home’ for the plug and ‘Wasserstein’ for the bulb) are completely inaccessible to me as a blind VoiceOver user.

Their functionality, comprising a number of buttons and sliders, would have been easy to make inclusive and this has been fed back to the developers. At the time of writing, however, these apps are strictly out-of-bounds to anyone with accessibility needs.

Adding Alexa to the mix

Alexa is used to control the Amazon Echo Dot Echo to the rescue. By searching for the associated ‘skill’ (these are like apps for the Echo) and linking them to your device you are instantly able to control your smart devices by voice through Alexa.

Of course if you can’t speak then this option isn’t for you, but for anyone who finds the apps problematic (like me) this is magic. It’s just like being on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. And if all you have is your voice - for example I’m thinking of my sister here who is both blind and has very advanced Multiple Sclerosis - then sci-fi fun becomes serious functionality.

Combining the new age of ambient computing represented by Alexa, the Google Home and the soon-to-be-released Apple HomePod with smart, connected, devices is opening up options for independence that were sci-fi fantasy until a few short months ago.

The age of automation

As if being able to control various appliances around your home, either by the tap of a finger on glass, or by the casual thrown voice command in the general direction of your favourite home assistant, wasn’t cool enough you can considerably augment your available options by adding in a bit of automation.

IFTTT - short for If This Then That - is a free and very popular system that helps connect a myriad of possible triggers and potential actions, and can also be used to voice-enable many devices and services other than your connected IOT gadgets.

You can then define a specific voice command and set it as the trigger for your Echo or Google Home. The resulting action (or actions) could be trivial but fun – such as adding what is currently playing on the Echo to a Spotify playlist or asking Alexa to ring your phone as you wander aimlessly around the house. Or they could be something potentially life-changing - such as sending an emergency call, text or email alerting someone when you are in distress, are having an attack.

If the extensive built-in features of the Echo and the thousands of additional available skills aren’t already enough, then the fantastic functions offered by IFTTT can take you well and truly into the age of automated, ambient computing.

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Maggie Philbin OBE Honoured with a Special Award and 9 Amazing Tech4Good Awards Winners are Chosen!

Maggie Philbin OBE, star of the BBC’s legendary technology show ‘Tomorrow’s World’ was the worthy recipient of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 'Special Award' for her contribution to technology, particularly for her role as CEO and Co-founder of TeenTech. Maggie received her Award along with our 8 amazing category and our People’s Award winners at a glittering ceremony at BT Centre in London on 11 July 2017.

Photo of Maggie Philbin OBE getting the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Special Award 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Congratulations to all the 2017 Award winners:

AbilityNet Accessibility Award: Bristol Braille Technology
Bristol Braille Technology is building a revolutionary and radically affordable Braille e-reader for blind people called Canute, designed with and by the blind community. The Canute is the world’s first multiple line Braille e-reader, forty characters per line by nine lines, and it will be affordable too. They want to be able to sell it for the price of a Perkins typewriter or iPhone. This would make it 20 times cheaper than existing digital Braille devices.

BT Connected Society Award: Sky Badger
Sky Badger finds educational, medical, financial and social support for families with disabled children all over the UK. Over the last five years, Sky Badger has supported over 1.02 million disabled children and their families. With 981,958 visitors to its website and over 17,470 fans and followers on social media, it is clearly reaching lots of people.

BT Young Pioneer Award: Dyslexic Aid
Year ten school pupils Kiera McKillop and Sinead McKeown from Killian’s College created the Dyslexic Aid, with a very limited budget, by using a Raspberry Pi computer. They have used their technical knowledge, skills and enthusiasm to design and make a device that helps children who are struggling to learn because of dyslexia.

Comic Relief Tech4Good for Africa Award: Praekelt.org
In South Africa, Praekelt.org’s Maternal Health Platform connects more than a million pregnant women and new mothers to vital services and information through the National Department of Health’s MomConnect programme.
Launched in 2014, so far it has sent out over 54 million messages to millions of women, with 95% of clinics in the country signed up to the service.

Community Impact Award: Chatterbox
Chatterbox is an online and in-person language tutoring service, delivered and developed by refugees. It brings together refugee talent with people and organisations that need people with excellent language skills. Since starting up in August 2016 they have supported more than 30 refugees with aspirations to rebuild their professional lives in the UK.

Digital Health Award: Fizzyo
Both of Vicky Coxhead’s sons have Cystic Fibrosis and because of this they have to do regular physio to keep infections at bay. She applied to feature on a a new BBC2 documentary asking for families with a problems to get in touchand was introduced to Haiyan Zhang, who volunteered to help. Haiyan works as Innovation Director at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. She enlisted the help of Creative Technologist Greg Saul to create a device that could take the boys’ breaths and turn them into controls for a videogame. Together, with Lee Stott at Microsoft UK, they organised hackathons where volunteer designers and engineers from across the UK came along to make new video game experiences for the Coxhead boys.

Digital Skills Award: FabFarm
FabFarm is a digital aquaponic farm that is designed, built and operated as a social enterprise by disabled students in Derry, N.Ireland. Developed by the Nerve Centre, FabLab, it uses new and emerging technologies to help empower, engage and inspire young people with special educational needs to develop new skills which are directly focused upon their employability in the digital marketplace.

Tech Volunteer of the Year Award: Simon Cook
Simon Cook started volunteering for Centra Group five years ago. Since then this digital champion has managed to set-up IT equipment in 52 sheltered housing schemes across London, and as far-a-field as Norfolk and Telford. His achievements are astounding, and are driven by his absolute determination and perseverance to use tech for good. In the beginning, it was difficult to get elderly residents involved in the IT projects, they were wary of him and the new technology. But, he has won them over and now runs a computer club four days a week that supports more than 30 people.

People’s Award: C the Signs
C the Signs, a decision support tool that enables GPs to see the early signs of cancer, was chosen as the winner of this award by the general public. The public were encouraged to read about each finalist and their entry on the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards website and vote for their choice for the People’s Award by sending a tweet using a dedicated hashtag.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tech volunteering with: older people, those with sight loss, young innovators and those disenfranchised - meet the AbilityNet Tech4Good Volunteer of the Year finalists

Four fantastic volunteers have made it to the finals of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Volunteer of the Year category. We think you'll agree, they all deserve praise and recognition. Choose of the four, or one of our other finalists (pictured below) to vote in the People's Choice award, which closes today. 

On 11 July we'll be tweeting the results of the awards from the BT Centre in London. Join us here

Simon Cook: Digital champion for older people

Simon has helped hundreds of elderly people gain access to IT equipment and a wifi connection for the first time,” said Paula Blackledge from Digital Unite.

He started volunteering for Centra Group five years ago. Since then this digital champion has managed to set-up IT equipment in 52 sheltered housing schemes across London, and as far-a-field as Norfolk and Telford. He runs a computer club four days a week that supports more than 30 people, has recycled old equipment and made grant applications for communities."

Julia the scheme manager at Kestrel Court, where Simon runs his weekly club, said: “Simon has been so amazing to work with, he is so kind and generous with his time and his patience is never-ending. Kestrel Court now has amazing tech."

 

Tech4Good 32 finalists 2017

 

Christine Dodd: Helping people with sight loss navigate Facebook and assistive devices

Former nurse, Christine Dodd is a smartphone and tech whizz. She is blind and teaches everything she knows to other people with sight loss, so everyone can benefit from tech.

Philip, an RNIB assistive aechnology coordinator said of Christine: “ It’s her unique combination of kindness and technical knowledge that makes this tech volunteer stand out from the crowd.”

She runs home and group technology learning sessions covering everything from specialist assistive devices to how to use Facebook. She has run sessions as part of RNIB’s ‘Living With Sight Loss’ courses.

When someone with sight loss becomes confident in using technology, the benefits can be life changing.

 

Emily-Jayne Crittenden: Inspiring community digital skills and innovation

Emily runs two local tech businesses and in 2014, volunteered to organise Norfolk Developers, a technology community group.

Through Norfolk Developers she organised over 90 events and workshops. These workshops are pivotal in keeping the local digital and technology community skilled and relevant, which in turn breeds innovation. This directly impacts start-up growth, as well as enabling traditional businesses to understand what technology can do for them.

After her success with Norfolk Developers, she has now kicked off a venture called Digital East Anglia to inspire younger developers, engineers and creatives to share tech skills and create digital hubs.

 

Steve Smith: Using his networks to suppot disenfranchised people with IT

The Collett Special Educational Needs School for children from 4 to 17 years is one of the lowest funded in Hertfordshire. Many of the children have no access to IT outside of school.  Steve, who is a key volunteer with the Charity IT Association (CITA) has come to the rescue, advising us on wifi and supporting funding applications.

In the last year, Steve has helped fourteen small charities via CITA and every time he is the first person to respond every time to special requests. He has a willingness to call on his wider networks to request support for others and has personally donated/brokered several additional items of IT equipment that have enabled organisations to do more than than they dreamed of. 

“Because of Steve’s skills and advocacy, not only do we have a fully-modernised learning suite that works seamlessly, we also have two amazing digital whiteboards which have made our group IT sessions so much more engaging and energetic for the people taking part," says Christina Lake, from the charity Blenheim which supports people with drug and alcohol problems.

 

 

Healthy games for kids and virtual reality for amputees - meet finalists of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Digital Health Award

Great Ormond Street Hospital's (GOSH) new app called ‘Blood Quest’ is helping to alleviate young people’s anxiety over blood tests and has reached the finals of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards.

Blood Quest uses creative animal games (see image below) which explore the workings of the heart to entertain and distract children when blood is being taken.

It was developed in response to nursing staff working on the children’s cancer wards at GOSH, where patients often need multiple blood tests during treatment.

Cartoon still image of animals on GSOH game

The app features a ‘quest’ game with different levels to complete. Game levels last the length of an average blood test.

A research team at the hospital developed the application in collaboration with the hospital’s art programme, GOSH Arts.

The creation is one of 32 finalists in the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards in association with BT (finalists pictured below). Blood Quest is one of four finalists in the health category. There are eight categories in total across the competition, including the AbilityNet Accessibility Award and the BT Connected Society Award.

C the Signs - early cancer diagnosis tool

Also in the AbilityNet Tech4Good Digital Health Award category is C the Signs, a tool which aims to help early cancer diagnosis.

Diagnosing cancer is extremely challenging. Unlike other diseases, there is no single identifiable symptom or test that can alert doctors to a potential cancer diagnosis. Cancer is a collection of signs, symptoms and risk factors, which often overlap with many other long-term diseases, says co-founder Dr Bhavagaya Bakshi, one of the two doctors responsible for the new health technology start-up.

pic of 32 finalists at tech4good finals in BT Tower

The innovation is a decision support tool, available on iOS, android and as a website. It uses artificial intelligence, combined with national evidence-based guidelines, to help GPs identify patients with cancer early.

Using primary care data and evidence, their support tool can spot other less obvious signs and symptoms that feature in the early stage of cancers.

Making physio fun: Fizzyo

Thirdly, we have Fizzyo, a clever way of spelling physio! A few years ago Vicky Coxhead was very tired of forcing her young sons to go to physiotherapy to help with their cystic fibrosis when their friends were having fun playing games. But she was also aware that regular physiotherapy is essential to keep infections at bay and prolong life for people with cystic fibrosis.

Spotting an advert for a new BBC2 documentary Big Life Big Fix asking for families with a problems to get in touch, she sent a request and was introduced to Haiyan Zhang, innovation director at Microsoft Research in Cambridge.

Together with creative technologist Greg Saul and a growing team they created a device that could take the boys’ breaths and turn them into controls for a video game.

Hackathons followed where volunteer designers and engineers from across the UK came along to make new video game experiences for the boys and others in the same situation.

Virtual reality to support amputees' rehabilitation

Completing the section is an entry from Sheffield Hallam University.

Using technology first developed for virtual reality gaming, Ivan Phelan, associate researcher working in gaming development and his team, are currently working on a project to support amputees prepare to use prosthetic limbs.

The new tech is helping designers create faster and more accurate real-life prosthetics.

The researcher has been involved in this area for the last ten years: “I really like the idea of using gaming technologies in a clinical setting and how it has the potential to make rehabilitation more engaging and even speed up recovery time,” says Phelan.

During trials, researchers placed a special armband, called a Myo, around peoples’ stumps. Once immersed in the virtual world, amputees can see the prosthetic limbs and are asked to do different everyday tasks in a kitchen, from turning on taps to slicing up food.

By using this new technology, researchers are able to see how these electronic limbs will work in real life, improve how it looks, how its grip function works and reduce the costs involved in getting equipment working more efficiently with fewer attempts.

Refugees and teenagers offered job prospects thanks to the finalists of the AbilityNet Tech4Good Community Impact Award

Around 117,000 people with refugee status are currently living in the UK. On average, those classed as refugees have higher levels of education and training than the rest of the population, but they often end up in low-skilled or exploitative work which hampers future prospects, says Mursal Hedayat from Chatterbox.

Chatterbox is an online and in-person language tutoring service, delivered and developed by refugees and has made it to the finalists selection at the coveted AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards.

The project brings together refugee talent with people and organisations who need people with excellent language skills. They recruit, train, and support talented people, who have become refugees, giving them stimulating work as language tutors, and creating a pathway into even better employment opportunities.

The Tech4Good award crowns those who are using tech skillfully and innovatively to positively effect communities.

Chatterbox has generated hundreds of hours of employment and engaging conversations, numerous friendships, and an abundance of cross-cultural learning. It has grown rapidly since starting up in August 2016 and has recently taken its first big contract with SOAS University of London.

The other three finalists in the competition, which will see winners announced on 11 July at BT centre in London, include miFuture Foundation.

Inspiring a jilted generation with targeted opportunities

Set up in 2011, the foundation is a social enterprise app and website which aims to link the seven Million 16-24 year olds in England and Wales to inspiring career and continued education opportunities.

miFuture founders say they take into account the perspectives and behaviours of young minds today; those who've grown up in a digital world full of short attention and filtered content.

It's using an intuitive system which sends young people ‘personalised‘ opportunities, and offers them easy one-click application processes. It also custom builds CVs.

The enterprise, which is based in South Wales, has already made sure over 2000 16-24 year olds have a CV, and is branching out to other areas of the UK.

Completing the category are Special iApps and Our MK (Milton Keynes). Special iApps started in 2011 when Beverly Dean (pictured below with her son) couldn’t find any educational apps that suited the needs of her youngest son, who has Down's Syndrome. The apps on the market were too distracting and complex for him.

Special apps for children with special educational needs

She worked on creating a series of clean, clear and simple apps for children with special educational needs.

The organisation has now worked with over 50 volunteers to translate content into 20 languages.

Our MK is a website which invites citizens of Milton Keynes to put forward ideas that will impact the community and help shape the future of the area. Hundreds of ideas have been gathered with 13 of these being turned into reality.

Founder of specialiapps Bev and her son William

Many of the funded projects are tech-based. For example, a cycle path treasure hunt app and another app which promotes breast-feeding-friendly locations.

They’ve also supported a food passport scheme to promote independent food and an advertising scheme for low cost solar panels.

To help them understand the community better and to get people talking to them online, the team has employed Community Mobilisers who support local people to take action within their socially disadvantaged areas.

See the full list of 32 AbilityNet Tech4Good finalists 2017 here. 

Vote for your favourite finalist in the AbilityNet Tech4Good People's Award 2017, before 5pm on the 7 July.

Connecting people in need reaps rewards for AbilityNet Tech4Good finalists

Empowering others is what the Tech4Good awards are all about. And this year's finalists in the Tech4Good BT Connected Society Award encapsulate this aim perfectly.

The finalist list demonstrates how technology can be used simply or more intricately to help connect and empower those who need each other.

In the top four is SignVideo. This idea was born in response to the frustration of the deaf British Sign Language (BSL) community who can find it incredibly difficult to communicate with hearing people and do normal, everyday things like visit the doctor or contact a service provider.

Ten years ago, Jeff McWhinney created a Video Relay Services and Video Remote Interpreting provider to enable communication between the community of over 150,000 deaf BSL users in the UK and hearing people.

This service is available instantly on tablets, smartphones, computers and laptops via apps and software for communication between friends, family, ordering a take away or going to the bank. The company has partnered with organisations such as BT, Barclays, HSBC, SSE, British Gas, Sky, Santander, DWP, Nationwide, RBS, Natwest, Prudential and more who offer the service to customers.

Connecting families with disabled children

Next is Sky Badger is an online charity connecting the families of disabled children. “When your child gets diagnosed with a medical condition or disability, it can feel like the loneliest place to be. You don’t know what to do, you don’t know where to turn. Sky Badger was created to give power back to families, so they know how to help their children to have the brightest futures,” said Naomi Marek from Sky Badger.

“We are here to empower other parents to connect. Technology has allowed us to share tools, to make a real difference that continues to be shared 24 hours a day in every corner of the UK.”

Atticus Link is web app founded to enable the efficient delivery of pro bono legal advice and improve the experience of advice seekers, advisors and the legal centres that support them. The app automates the routine fact-finding exercise common during legal centre appointments and provides a secure environment to review, evaluate and advise on legal issues remotely.

The Founders are addressing a systemic and growing problem in the UK: the decline in access to legal advice and the rise of advice deserts.

Linking lawyers with those critically in need of advice

One of the founders Fatiha explains: “Today, people who might be in a difficult legal situation will have access to justice without leaving their house. They will be able to use either their computer or their phone to log onto the Atticus-Link app. They will not have to wait in a queue with no guarantee to be heard. This, to me, is priceless, an amazing innovation that will make people’s lives easier and save their time.”

Completing the category, we have the OrCam MyEye, a wearable vision device gives people their independence back. MyEye provides advanced text-to-speech from any surface, sign, document or computer. Users will be able to identify regular shopping items and products around the home, and they won’t have to worry about not recognising familiar faces, as it stores them too.

It helps those who are visually impaired or blind, as well as those who struggle with learning difficulties such as dyslexia.

MyEye does not require an internet connection or power outlets to operate. A tiny camera fits onto the side of any glasses and this connects to a pocket-sized computer and battery pack.

Don't penalise disabled people through expensive assistive tech, say AbilityNet Tech4Good finalists

Simply having a disability and wanting do the same things as your family, friends and peers has sometimes sadly meant expensive assistive technology devices and software.

But Accessibility Award finalists in the AbilityNet Tech4Good awards think this is unfair and so have created exciting and ground-breaking technology which is either free or much cheaper than similar options.

How about typing with your eyes using free assistive on-screen keyboard software? One of the finalists in the Tech4Good Accessibility Award category has created the OptiKey programme for Windows to do this. It works partciularly well for people who have motor and speech limitations through conditions such as Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) / Motor Neuron Disease (MND) and are unable to type.

Open source and free assistive software

The programme can be used with an eye-tracking device installed, or a webcam. The software enables someone to 'type' by selecting letters, numbers and other keys using something called 'dwell selection' (where a person holds their gaze over a letter and the computer registers it as a typed key).

For someone who has a little movement it can work, for example, with the person using one simple button or assistive device reachable to them which can then be operated to locate and click on keys all from one point, such as a switch on a wheelchair. Or, if a person has some movement, a mouse can be used to select keys.

Julius Sweetland, programmer and founder of OptiKey, says: “It was written to challenge the outrageously expensive, unreliable and difficult to use AAC (alternative and augmentative communication) products on the market. It is therefore fully open-source and free. Forever.”.

image of the Canute Braille e-reader

In this category with OptiKey is the Canute digital Braille e-reader, designed to be an affordable option for blind people or those with sight loss. The designers of this piece of hardware saw that Braille readers were losing out on key skills and pleasure in an age of digital books and Kindle type devices.

“This is not just a hardware project; it’s a labour of love that’s lasted five years,” said Ed Rogers from Bristol Braille which has created the Canute. “All of us came to this either through the hackspace or the Braille reading community.”

The joy of Braille reading

The Canute team says affordable Braille is essential for blind literacy, education and employment, yet Braille use has been declining for decades due to stagnant technology. Text-to-speech options do not maintain literacy or offer the joy of reading, he believes. 

The technology is the first multiple line Braille e-reader and has forty characters per line by nine lines. It is not on the market yet but the aim is to be able to sell it at the same price as an iPhone, to make it cheaper than anything else that offers any similarity. “We rely very heavily on the feedback, design and knowledge of a community group of 290 Braille readers called the Braillists,” said Rogers.

Field tests are have been running in schools and with blind professionals, educators and students. The aim is to reverse the decline in Braille literacy and increase blind literacy, education, employment and social engagement.

a lady uses autonome in her kitchen to learn how to use her kettle

Joining the two finalist to complete the category as Samsung R&D Institute and Auto-nome. Samsung has added the 'Voice Guide' to its Smart TV, expanding the functionality of its digital Text-to-Speech engine. Now the TV is able to use this engine to accurately announce on-screen text for selected Video on Demand applications, boosting information for the viewer. In addition its “See colors” feature enables users with colour vision deficiency to see colours more clearly and sharply.

Point an iPad at a kettle and learn how to make a cuppa

The AutonoMe combines mobile and video technology to offer interactive learning for people with learning difficulties. A person can use the a combination of mobile and video technology to point a smart device at an object, such as a vacuum or kettle, to get a video showing how to use the vacuum or make a cup of tea (see photo above).

“Smart devices and our support systems are making the 21st century living accessible to everyone. Often people with learning disabilities are left behind or an afterthought when it comes to building innovative technology,” explains William Britton from Inclusive Media Solutions, which has designed the AutonoMe.

In 2017, the project partnered with Devon, Dorset, Hampshire and Southampton Councils, to roll out the technology to the people in their communities.

Vote for your favourite of this year's 32 finalists, including the projects mentioned here, in the People's Award.

 

Gamifying real life to get youth inspired and employable: the AbilityNet Tech4Good digital skills finalists

Can a young person use the same kind of skills they use to catch a Pokemon, to find a job? And can you teach digital innovation on a sustainable food farm? Finalists in the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards Digital Skills category believe you can.

The list of five finalists includes DigitalCity, based in Norwich and Bristol. Think PokemonGo for digital skills - this city-wide trail for young people and their parents, connects them to local digital businesses, helping them find out what skills they need and what careers are on offer.

“A young person looking for a career they are inspired by, can simply pull out their phone during #DigitalCity week (half term) and through the interactive online map, plan a route to engage with potential employers,” says founder Kieran Miles, Head of KakeCo, the organisation behind the initiative. He was uninspired by the lack of development in career support for young people, which hadn't changed since he left school over a decade ago.

Digital fabrication tech and sustainable food

Alongside DigitalCity is FabFarm! Based in Derry, N Ireland – a digital aquaponic farm social enterprise developed by creative youth organisation the Nerve Centre and operated digitally by disabled students.

Students do an accredited training programme in Digital Fabrication & Design. Building a commercial aquaponic farming unit, they then grow produce to sell to local restaurants and markets.

Digital Fabrication technologies like 3D printing are rapidly impacting upon the employment market but accredited training is still relatively rare. The FabFarm! project addresses this with an area of the workforce that suffers from chronic unemployment.

young boy holding wires and a maker club event

The winners

The winning entry in this category needs to show it is identifying and delivering the skills that people will need in the digital age, engaging with the learners in innovative ways and ensuring inclusion so that everyone can benefit equally from the learning activities provided.

Last year the award went to BBC micro:bit - a pocket-sized computer being given free to every pupil in Year 7 in England and Wales, S1 in Scotland and Year 8 Northern Ireland, to inspire them to get creative with digital and develop core skills in science, technology and engineering.

The finalist list 2017 is very strong once again, and includes MakerClub BrightSparks (a session pictured above) programme for young inventors from disadvantaged backgrounds and #techmums in London which trains mothers from deprived areas and with English as a second language in skills such as coding.

Digtial inclusion mission

Completing the list is One Digital Partnership, which has trained 11,000 digital champions across the UK in 12 months to combat digital inclusion - working with the fact that five million people in the UK have never used the internet and are locked out from doing business, leisure, shopping, communicating and using essential government services. 

Sue Black of tech mums pictured smiling at Tech4Good finalists networking event

MakerClub in various locations around the UK challenges the fact that children from lower income families have poor access to technology and significantly less chances of entering into a STEM (science, tech, engineering and maths) job. At the same time, 47% of digital companies say the education system isn’t meeting the needs of business.

The BrightSparks programme finds children with the potential to shine by working with local school ICT co-ordinators and conncecting them to local digital companies to work on tech projects.

Changing the game for excluded mums

In London, Techmums has had great results with dramatically improving women's confidence using computers, smartphones, iPads and Raspberry Pis to Arduinos. They cover everything from app design to social media - whatever the mums are interested in.

Those involved have gone back into education, started or improved their business, got jobs or simply end up feeling more empowered with technology and able to help their children with school work.

Support can be simple but game-changing for those involved. One woman, who runs a school uniform business in London’s East End says the project changed her life by teaching her how to add attachments to emails.

“She realised that she could take photos of her samples on her phone and send to customers rather than her son having to take parcels of samples across London,” says founder Dr Sue Black (pictured left at the Tech4Good finalists event).  Twenty-five years ago Dr Black found herself and her four children in a women's refuge before going on to get a PhD in software engineering and making it her mission to digitally empower other women.

Why the new version of iOS may soothe the eye and double the battery

screengrab of iOS11 For many years blind users have been able to blank the screen for security reasons (you don’t know who’s looking over your shoulder) but now the battery savings that come with unlit pixels will be available for everyone thanks to a new feature in iOS 11.

The much-rumoured dark mode

Like dark matter, which we know to be out there even though no one has actually seen it, there have long been rumours about Apple introducing a ‘dark mode’ in iOS which gives users the option of turning the predominantly white background of most screens to black. We’ve not seen it in the wild as yet, but most Apple pundits believe that it’s out there…

One reason why black will be so significant in iOS 11 is that the next iPhone (will it be called the iPhone 8? Or perhaps they’ll jump to 10 as it’s the 10th anniversary) will definitely feature a different screen technology than all other iPhones to date. The screens thus far have always been LCD which are backlit uniformly across the screen, whereas the new screens will be OLED (organic light-emitting diode) in which each dot individually lights up – thus saving energy for every unlit pixel.

So having the choice of a predominantly dark colour scheme in iOS will have very significant savings on battery life.

Fear not – dark mode is already here

I’ve got some news for you - dark mode has actually existed ever since the iPhone 4S. It’s been lurking in the Accessibility settings.

If you’ve never gone in to explore what they can do, I’d recommend everyone check them out.

Those features aren’t just for people carrying some sort of official ‘I have a disability’ ID card. If we could rename that selection of super-powerful customisations, then the most appropriate term would probably be called ‘Personalisation’.

screen shot of iPhone ios10 home screen with inverted colours

Called 'Invert colours’, this feature has been helping people with a preference for white text on a black background for nearly seven years now.

Plus, in the section of the Accessibility preferences called ‘display accommodations’ you’ll find a number of filters to transform the colours of your phone to help people with dyslexia or colour blindness. You can set whatever background colour and intensity you like across your entire phone – from the mildest of pink tinges to a vibrant yellow or blue (see the first coloured pencil image below). Whatever makes reading easier or simply tickles your fancy.

There's also a colour filter for people who are red/green colour blind (see photo on right, below) - apparently that's a fifth of the male population. This sees red and orange pencils turn to shades of pink. The pink pencil stays pink but the shades or the three colours (red, orange, pink) are different enough for someone to tell them apart in any graphs or charts they may be viewing on a web page or in a spreadsheet etc. The middle image shows a regular colour selection for.

coloured pencils on iPhone with beige filter coloured pencils on iPhone with filter or colour blindness adaptions coloured pencils on iPhone with a red/ green colour blindness filter

Whitepoint

The last setting under Display Accommodations is called ‘Whitepoint’ which reduces piercing whites while keeping everything else the same. Cool huh? Who wouldn’t want that when reading in bed?

I’ve just mentioned three features but the Accessibility settings of your iPhone has dozens more that could make your phone vastly easier to use. And once you’ve chosen your preferred combination of Accessibility settings, you can easily toggle them on and off (and be back to 'normal') by triple-clicking the Home button. Et voila! Instant personalisation whenever you need it.

iOS 11 brings an update to ‘dark mode’

While the invert colours option described above isn’t of course referred to as ‘dark mode’, there’s a good reason to believe that true dark mode is coming to iOS 11. This is based upon a feature that we already know exists in the developer release and will undoubtedly appear in the public beta coming out later this month – and because it’s an accessibility feature there’s no way they’ll take it out in the final version.

This new feature is actually an improvement to the Invert Colours ‘dark mode’ - namely that all images and videos will now be left untouched and not inverted. Up till now everything was switched making black text white and white backgrounds black, but also making reds green and blues yellow – making pictures and videos into weird negatives of themselves.

In iOS 11 we will no longer have this limitation, giving us a true dark mode available for anyone who wants to ease their eyes and (with the advent of an OLED screen where black saves battery) gain a good few extra hours of phone use every day.

Bringing dark mode out of the shade

Will they bring this colour scheme out from the Accessibility settings and make it a choice under ‘Display and brightness’ on your Settings front screen? Maybe and maybe not. If everyone realises that the accessibility settings on their phone are actually for everyone – if we ever get to that stage – then it truly won’t matter either way.

Please tell your colleagues, family and friends to go play in the frankly sexy settings that are Accessibility and enjoy a truly personalised phone.

What else will be new for accessibility in Apple’s new OS updates?

There’s plenty more to get excited about in the soon-to-be updated operating systems across the entire Apple product line.

For a full run-down of the New Accessibility Features Set to Come Later this Year in iOS 11, watchOS 4, tvOS 11 and macOS 10.13 High Sierra check out this excellent AppleVis article.

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Girls rule the youth category at AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards

The BT Young Pioneers award finalist line up for AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards 2017 comprises three young women and one young man.

Last year, the finalist selection saw ten young men make the Young Pioneers list. It was eventually won by three Year 10 male students from Newbury with their eWATERPay creation, designed to support clean water technology in West Africa. 

The 32 AbilityNet finalists 2017 on stage at BT Tower

This year's finalist selection includes two year 10 pupils from Killian’s College in Northern Ireland, Kiera McKillop and Sinead McKeown, who've created Dyslexic Aid, a multi-sensory learning technology which assists children with dyslexia.

“They have used their technical knowledge, skills and enthusiasm to design and make a device that helps children who are struggling to learn because of dyslexia,” said Sean Connolly, the girls' teacher from their college in Northern Ireland.

"Girls are just as good as boys"

“Their achievement shows other young people how digital technology can be used to solve everyday day problems in a fun and exciting way. And, it also shows that girls are just as good as boys, when it comes to using technology to help others,” he added. 

Kiera and Sinead created the Dyslexic Aid with a very limited budget, by using a Raspberry Pi computer. Researching their prototype, the students worked closely with a group of dyslexic children and their special educational needs coordinator.

They used Python to programme the aid, liaising with experts at the University of Ulster in Jordan’s Town and the British Dyslexic Association.

The Dyslexic Aid brings together all this research. It creates a multi-sensory learning environment stimulating a person’s different senses to help them learn. The aid is designed to help dyslexic pupils better understand the alphabet, write letters and spell basic words.

Raspberry Pi and Sense Hat

After analysing their own data and data from other dyslexia organisations, they designed and made a working prototype using a Raspberry Pi Computer and a Sense Hat (an add-on board, that includes a range of different sensors and flashing LED lights).

The innovative device allows users to see letters, hear them, write them and say them. The Dyslexic Aid has incredible potential, believe the judges.

At the moment, it’s still a prototype and in need more development to make it more useable and comfortable to hold and suitable for different age groups, but these dedicated young people are working hard to make this a reality.

TeenTech Wearable Tech Winner

Joining them in the young finalists category is 15-year-old Alexandria Gyford, who recently won a 'wearable tech" prize at the National TeenTech Awards 2016.

The teenager has created wearable tech called the Bra with Benefits designed to identify early stage breast cancer before any outward signs are visible.

Alexandria is driven by a desire to make a difference, and experienced first-hand the impact of breast cancer in her own family. As part of the process she’s worked with leading scientists in the US and UK to validate and develop her ideas and designs.

“I am dyslexic – when I was eight I couldn’t read or write. I was inspired to take part in the TeenTech Awards by some girls in the year above me,” says Alexandria. She recently addressed 150 Year eight and nine pupils on International Women’s Day to share her story and is pursuing the further development of her product while working towards her GCSEs.

Their category is completely by 13-year-old, Joshua Lowe of EduBlocks, who is passionate about programming teaches coding to young children across the UK.

Tech4Good Africa and AbilityNet Accessibility Awards

Overall there are 32 finalists, across eight categories, including the coveted AbilityNet Accessibility Award and this year the Comic Relief Tech4Good for Africa Award for the very first time.

The final awards event at BT Centre on 11 July will also see a Special Award for excellence in accessibility, which was originally given to Professor Stephen Hawking.

One of the winners each year also receives a People's Award, given by public vote rather than our expert judging panel. 

Finalists in the accessibility award category for the Tech4Good Awards 2017 are AutonoMe, which enables people with learning disabilities to do tasks such as vacuum cleaning, by point their tech tablet/iPad at a vacuum clear to get a video on how to use it.

Next is Bristol Braille, which has created braille E-readers, Optikey, an open-source assistive on-screen keyboard which can be operated by people with certain disabilities using eye-gaze technology and finally Samsung Smart TV completes the list. 

See the full list of finalists in the AbilityNet Tech4Good Awards, supported by BT, here.