Tris Dyson: Technology has the power to bring people together – we must support civil society innovators tackling social isolation

06 Apr 2020 Expert insight

Tris Dyson from Nesta Challenges looks at how technology can be used to help people feel connected.

Now, more than ever before, many of us are using technology to stay connected. Whether it’s using apps to find out how we can help in our local communities, video-calling colleagues, or taking part in online exercise sessions – there are lots of ways to ensure we don’t feel disconnected during the current crisis.

Although Nesta Challenges’ Tech to Connect Challenge began long before coronavirus was at the forefront of everyone’s minds, the competition was all about supporting tech innovations from civil society organisations working to tackle social isolation. Funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Tech to Connect was an England-wide competition to find and scale up the most impactful solutions which could help to build more connected communities and reduce the causes and outcomes of social isolation.

The challenge aimed to find simple solutions that could make a real difference to people feeling isolated due to a wide range of reasons – from managing illness, trauma, or a challenging life transition, to feeling held back by age, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. The civil society organisations who work closely with the most at-risk communities have the best understanding of how to really meet their needs – and the challenge aimed to maximise the expertise of these organisations, helping them to utilise tech in a way that really reflects the needs of their beneficiaries .

The term ‘social isolation’ has taken on a new meaning in recent weeks – and while the innovations were by no means put forwards or selected with the current coronavirus crisis in mind, many of the services and products that were developed through Tech to Connect will be particularly beneficial to people in even greater need over the coming weeks and months.

This is true for You are Not Alone (YANA), an initiative which aims to be the world’s largest collaborative resource for survivors of sexual assault, which we recently selected as the Tech to Connect winner. YANA is an online platform created by the community interest company Chayn, which provides a safe space for people to access details of local shelters, lawyers and therapists, and procedures for reporting leading to a more connected system of support for sexual assault survivors.

In the UK, 1 in 5 women will experience sexual assault during their lifetime, rising to 1 in 3 globally. In addition, 646,000 men have experienced some type of sexual assault since they were 16 in England and Wales. Yet not knowing where to go, fear of being judged, and a lack of trust in institutions can all contribute to survivors not coming forward and experiencing social isolation.

As people across the world are in lockdown due to coronavirus, there are concerns that it will inadvertently lead to an increase in domestic and sexual abuse. Reports of violence have increased by 30% in China, Italy and Greece. Hera Hussain, the creator of YANA, explains: “Being forced to stay home with an abuser for long amounts of time can be a harrowing experience – and stress of any kind can act as a trigger for violence and coercion, putting survivors at an even greater risk.” Indeed, activists and survivors are already seeing an alarming rise in abuse around the world.

Being a survivor-led project itself, YANA has prioritised minimising the risk of survivors feeling isolated by making it easier for those affected to find out what their support options are and who can help. It includes resources to guide survivors through the process of pressing charges, as well as tracking and saving their case information and paths to recovery.

Of course, there are big differences between those of us using tech to navigate challenges to our daily lives created by the coronavirus pandemic, and those people for whom tech offers a vital lifeline and essential support network. But there is no question that tech can make a major positive difference in connecting people facing a variety of difficulties.

Social isolation can affect everyone, and it is vital that civil society organisations are given the opportunities and means to develop innovations that can make a meaningful difference. Many civil society organisations have great ideas to combat social isolation but are constrained by a lack of funding or resources.

Let’s ensure that those organisations who are best placed to tackle these issues can develop their ideas into reality.

Tris Dyson is executive director of Nesta Challenges

This article has been supplied by a commercial partner 

More on