Dr Helen Manchester

Dr Helen Manchester

Dr Helen Manchester, Reader in Digital Inequalities and Urban Futures at the University of Bristol, has co-created a range of digital tools to help improve quality of life for older people in care homes.

We are not getting care of older people right in the UK; the current system focusses on caring for bodies rather than social, cultural or emotional needs. At the moment, the technology designed to help older people is largely assistive or surveillance technology – in many ways it replaces rather than enhances the human. On the Tangible Memories project we were trying to find ways that digital technology could enhance community and improve quality of life.

The concept of care is complex – it can involve affection and labour – in both cases it is women who are largely involved. However, Tim Lloyd Yeates, the founder of the charity Alive Activities, was inspirational in his intuitive way of working and keeping a human focus at the centre of any caring relationship. We learnt from him to recognise the feelings, emotions and human relations required in processes of technology design for care settings.

We developed a number of devices through Tangible Memories, including the Story Creator app. It allows someone to create a book with photographs of objects that are important to them, which are then accompanied by up to ten minutes of audio they can record. It puts the stories back into these objects and acts as a spur for conversation between family members but also other care home residents and staff, too. Care homes are largely female dominated environments but we need to be careful not to gender the activities – for both the women and men there. Not all women like knitting and craft, as demonstrated by the former pilot who sat in our interactive rocking chair and instantly remembered being back in the cockpit.

In the past, collegiality and collaborative approaches to work have not been valued– both in the digital sector and in academia. It’s not exclusively women that work in this way of course but a lot of women do. The increase in funding for research programmes with collaboration at their core enable the inclusion of more diverse voices in technology design.

I’ve always been interested in how you empower people to represent themselves. I started out as a high school teacher, before moving into community media and then taking on part-time research posts. Projects such as Tangible Memories bring academics together with artists, historians, technology designers, care workers, and the residents themselves – more voices are involved which is essential if we are to design technologies for social good.