Some council apply tech creatively

How technology used innovatively provides genuine help for the socially excluded

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...

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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.