When policymakers talk about “smart cities”, they’re often referring to ideas that make life more convenient — ride-hailing apps that allow you to get from door-to-door quickly and cheaply, for example, or reliable wifi in public spaces.
But the UK city of Leeds is using tech to tackle a deep-rooted and unglamorous social problem with a new app that fights loneliness.
Loneliness in the city
Social isolation is becoming a serious public health issue. In 2017, the former US surgeon general Vivek H. Murthy called it an “epidemic”. A fifth of all people in the US suffer from it, and as many as a quarter in the UK. It can be as damaging to long-term health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
For public health teams, finding the people suffering loneliness before it develops into a more serious health problem is difficult. “We knew from peer-reviewed data that there were hundreds and thousands of chronically lonely and socially-isolated people with basic unmet needs,” said Jonathan Hindley, an Advanced Health Improvement Specialist at Leeds’ public health team.
But while “there’s a lot published on what to do when you find somebody who’s socially isolated”, Hindley said, there is “scant little” information available on how to find them.
In order to track down those at risk, Leeds city council commissioned the Urban Sustainable Development Lab (USDL), a local team of technology experts, to develop a solution.
They came up with “Careview”, a mobile app that can be installed on the phones of frontline council workers. Users simply tap a heart icon on the app if they notice signs of loneliness when out in the community; anything from closed curtains to rubbish building up in a garden. The app records the spot of the sighting as a point on a map.
When combined, all this data is drawn into a heat map of the city, revealing the areas where signs of social isolation are highly concentrated. The council’s public health team then use this to coordinate their community outreach, leafleting the affected streets and offering services.
The app’s primary purpose is to help the council target its community work. According to Hindley, it can require up to 140 outreach workers to offer help on an average Leeds estate. Using the Careview data, they can identify the specific streets where the loneliness problem seems most acute.
Local government across the UK is currently having to find ways to do more with less: by 2020, thanks to budget cuts imposed by central government, funding to local administrations will have declined by 77% from 2015 levels. That makes it more difficult to provide health and social care to residents.
“There’s so much buzzword nonsense about smart cities — the people we’re working with are open to an alternative version”
The app has helped the council to better target its scarce resources. When outreach teams have distributed flyers offering help and support in the past, according to Hindley, 100 leaflets might lead to one response. On estates which Careview has helped identify, they have received as many 47 responses for every 100 leaflets, requesting help managing finances, accessing healthcare or cleaning their flats.
In one case, Careview helped flag a street housing an elderly man whose wife had recently died. His house had fallen into disrepair and he was without water or heating. Thanks to the outreach, the council was able to reconnect both and set up a visit from a community outreach team.
Smarter smart cities
Leeds city council is trialling Careview until September, after which it will complete a full academic analysis. The promising signs so far have been partly a result of USDL making the software as user-friendly as possible for frontline staff.
“We operate under the assumption that, whatever solution we create, it should just offer one unit of change for the service user or the service provider,” said Abhay Adhikari, lead consultant at USDL. He argued that similar tech sometimes failed because it tries to get public servants to perform complex or unfamiliar tasks. Careview just requires staff to make one tap
Leeds and USDL received funding from England’s National Health Service to develop the app, and now other services across Leeds have shown interest. For instance, the fire service wants to adapt Careview to map dilapidated properties which appear at risk of fire. For Adhikari and Hindley, the point of Careview is to use technology to solve the difficult or “boring” problems facing citizens, in as clear and straightforward a way as possible..
“There’s so much buzzword nonsense about smart cities” said Adhikari. “The people that we’re working with are really open to an alternative version, which is putting vulnerable communities first.” — Anoush Darabi
(Picture credit: Flickr/Lawrence Holmes)