Sunderland City Council is the winner of the 2020 Civic Innovation in Technology Award (Europe) from the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard.

The Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard announced the winners of its third Annual City Innovation and Innovator Awards, at a fitting digital ceremony broadcast across the globe on 28th January 2021, with shortlisted entrants from the US to the UK eagerly awaiting the esteemed awards’ outcome.

Social Health Enabling Independent Living (SHIELA) App’s innovative use of assistive technology, the Council earned its place as top civic innovator in technology across Europe for 2020. The award serves as recognition of the Council’s innovative approach to enabling residents to live independent lives and have a choice in how they do this.

The Council has been developing technology enabled care as a core element of the social care offering in the city. Social care practitioners began working with families to explore the use of familiar household technologies and home automation systems to enable independence and build confidence for people whose disability or long-term health condition was beginning to impact on daily living. The service is now well versed in helping families to use GPS and other IOT devices to identify when a family member needs assistance and provide the response that is required to keep them safe.

Users describe feeling empowered by the technology to maintain vital social connections whilst continuing to live independently. Sunderland resident, Tracey Ganley, said: “I have MS which has reduced function in my upper limbs. The assistive technology allows me to call my family and friends and speak to them on the telephone. I can control my environment turning on and off the bedroom light and lamp and regulating the temperature of my home. Following advice from the team and some equipment I bought myself, I can now turn over all of the channels on my TV via voice activation. This has greatly improved my quality of life.”

Social Care Practitioners began to consider the potential benefits of evaluating patterns of activity gathered through these devices in predicting when the user’s behaviours were beginning to change, identifying this as an indicator that the person may be unwell or in need of a review of their circumstances that would prevent a crisis from arising.

New technology continues to play a significant role in the transformation of the delivery and support of social care community care services across the UK and globally, and Sunderland’s digital ambitions have been driving the city forward to remain at the forefront of research and development around assistive technology (AT) and telecare solutions.

The SHEILA app uses a range of next generation technologies, connectivity and data to support the wellbeing of residents. Sensors, push alerts and data analytics are just a few of the features of the SHEILA app, which was praised by the panel for its transformative innovation in the 2020 pandemic.

Re-imagining social care provision through the use of technology to support individuals to live better, safer, lives in their own homes for longer sits at the app’s core. ‘Technology innovation and integration into a city platform’ were cited as key drivers in the judges’ decision to crown Sunderland City Council as winners at this year’s awards. They also noted the app’s innovation in citizen engagement via this smart solution, which is both expandable and portable beyond its successful preliminary pilot.

Patrick Melia, chief executive of Sunderland City Council, said: “It is with a huge sense of pride that I stand here not only as a representative of the UK’s smartest city for 2020, but now a leading European city as the recipient of this incredible accolade from the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard on behalf of my council team and our valued partners.”

The SHEILA app was born from a collective of several organisations collaborating on an Internet of Things (IoT) national test bed pilot. Partners included: Sunderland City Council, Sunderland Software Centre, the Digital Catapult North East and Tees Valley, health commissioners, the Local Government Association and NHS Digital.

Following a highly successful and innovative proof of concept, the localised pilot across 2019-20 which pioneered the use of smart devices and motion sensors in vulnerable people’s homes across Sunderland, to help their carers and families make sure they were safe when alone. Factors monitored included whether they were taking their medication and eating properly, as well as offering an agile platform to offer appropriate support, alerts and prompts.

SHEILA is a software platform with all the functionality and feel of an app on a care user’s phone, but the power of a website sitting behind it and is capable of being connected to a vast array of sensors installed in homes. All of this sensor data is integrated into the city platform and app and presented in an intuitive user interface for family/informal carers or Council care providers to easily use and analyse. And additional functionality enables ‘push alerts’ such as SMS text messages, which allow a family/informal carer to passively monitor the wellbeing of the vulnerable individual. This is unique in the assistive technology market and pioneered by Sunderland City Council.

Patrick added: “The prevalence of engagement with citizens, carers and healthcare professionals has been and still is an integral success factor in the SHEILA app and its future development.

“In our smart city of Sunderland, technology is embraced as an enabler and essential driver for positive change, but there is very much a belief across the city that a ‘citizen first, tech second’ approach will continue to ensure the needs of individuals is at the forefront of our ongoing dynamic developments.”

Assistive technologies are now in place in over 650 homes across Sunderland making a transformational difference to vulnerable and elderly people who want to remain in their own homes and providing the much-needed reassurance for their loved ones. A hybrid approach of technology enabled, and personal care is having a real and positive impact on the cost of social care and is now fully integrated into the Council’s social care provision.

With an ambition to reach 1,500 homes over the next 2 years Sunderland City Council is well on its way to ensuring this UK and now European leading innovation is at the forefront of transforming social care provision well into the future.

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