We want to challenge the view that use of new digital technologies has contributed to a long-term increase in social isolation. Our test puts technology in the heart of a community - to see whether it pulls people to a communal place.
For the last month the Lab have been testing out Amazon Echo with visually impaired customers. It's a free flow test to just see what benefits they feel they get from having assistive technology around them in their daily lives.
Yesterday I went and visited the customers to see how they are getting on and ask for more feedback on Alexa.
Feedback is still be fully analysed but generally customers loved Alexa and it has clearly has demonstrable benefits - including sparking interest in technology generally.
So the initial phase of the test was 'would customers find use for Alexa', which I think is a definitive yes. The second phase is more around 'how can we make it happen long term'.
It's here that we are encountering hurdles that can be a barrier to getting people online.
In order for us to continue with the test we have decided to address some of the hurdles that would crop up if we were to allow customers to keep Alexa. After all - research shows that once people join the online world, digital technology often becomes an integral part of their daily lives.
These are the practical barriers we have to face:
1. In order for Alexa to function it needs to utilise the WiFi through a phone or tablet or whatever else will hold the app. Currently Alexa runs through a phone that we have donated from the Lab that sits next to the device. To move forward we need to think about what we can supply to customers (or ideally they can supply themselves) to keep Alexa running - many of them do not have smartphones.
2. Alexa is an easy to use piece of kit but it has highlighted the relatively low digital skills in the community. This is a benefit as customers are now actively talking about digital skills. We do need to connect them to other support within the community that can help them move to a more self sufficient level.
3. As we, and many online forums have already pointed out, Alexa isn't designed for multiple users so we have currently set up Alexa with a communal email account which we monitor and control. We have turned off audio purchasing but there is still a lack of accountability which needs to be addressed (apologies there is no way to make governance sound exciting).
4. Accountability is also tricky when considering long term ICT support. Naturally in order for Bromford to maintain the device it will incur a cost so we need to decide whether the benefits to customers are worth the cost - or if its a better avenue to explore gifting the device to the customers themselves.
Basically we have some more work to do before conclusions can be made but the first phase has definitely fuelled us up enough to trudge through the second.