Using technology to improve the lives of those sectors of society who find themselves socially excluded is sometimes seen as a ridiculous, utopian panacea. However, Sunderland City Council seems to be showing the way with some imaginative ideas and has won £2m of government funding to realise its plans.
They include a scheme to allow carers respite from their jobs and a video-conferencing system to benefit local charities. However, not everyone had great ideas. Out of 79 councils which submitted proposals for how technology could tackle the issues of social exclusion, there are only nine finalists in the running to secure funding, which makes you realise we have a way to go yet.
One of Sunderland's schemes will use 3G mobiles to link carers with those they help to a 24 hour contact centre using the data channel. Then the centre can track and monitor the cared-for person to allow the carer some time off. Another scheme puts a desktop video conferencing system in the hands of local voluntary groups and refugees to talk to each other for free over the internet - although whether they are using Skype for this is not known. The system means asylum seekers can get quick and cheap access to translators who may live outside of Sunderland. Frankly anyone could set this up, but the fact that the Council is thinking along simple, easy lines is what's different here. Video conferencing is also being been used by schools in the Washington district of Sunderland to link up to schools in Washington DC in the US.
Meanwhile Ealing council is planning to set up 'virtual mentors' via online forums to support disadvantaged children through the transition from primary to secondary school. Norfolk county council has a new pilot scheme dubbed TextPal to provide a network of extra support and friendship for young carers in the county. Manchester has set its sights rather lower. Trained advisers will target some of the city's most deprived areas to offer a range of services, such as advice on buying equipment, IT training and advice on how to use the web. But you have to start somewhere...