Elderly care and the internet of things

Last week I took part in a workshop run by DIOTTO an EU-funded project on the use of connected products in elderly care. Some real issues came up which I thought I’d share. It’s important to note we were mainly looking at the use of connected hardware to enhance the relationship between carers and an elderly person who is still independent and living at home.

1. Defining “seniors”.
Louisa and Marcel pointed out that during most of your work life you are categorised and targeted (by Acorn and others). But once you hit 60, you are a “senior” which is unhelpful. Profiling on the basis of technology uptake (do they have an iPad or not) is also unhelpful. We need to be granular about designing for an ageing population which is diverse and often has disposable income in the early years of retirement.

2. Transitional technologies
What kinds of technologies do we need to design that a person will find useful using at 60 and will help them in their 70s and 80s? Noone wants to be “tracked” while they are independent, but once that first fall happens, smart environments may save your life. Is personal data the price to pay to be let to live an independent life in the later stages of life? This is a hard problem to tackle as it means admitting we may be in need of help. Noone wants to think that way, people will often avoid buying a wheelchair even when they need it, because admitting that you’re at “that stage” is an awful blow to your pride. As designers we need to be sensitive to the fact that people may never have a good relationship with our product.

3. Types of care
The word “carer” is misleading. It treats family, friends and healthcare professionals in the same way. Their impact on the life of an ageing person is very different. Many older people suffer from extreme loneliness and isolation, especially men. On Radio 4 the other day, professional carers were interviewed and shared their distress at visiting a patient for only a few minutes a day. That person looked forward to that conversation all day. These are realities of medical support, but we know that a strong social support makes people more resilient.

4. Getting old
Noone likes to think of themselves as “old”. My 79 year old grandmother who sadly has stage 2 Alzheimer’s disease and thinks her care home is full of “old people” so she doesn’t socialise with them. We’ve been successful at stigmatising the wisest people in our communities to the point even they don’t want to own up to it. The Homeshare scheme is brilliant but can we build opportunities for knowledge exchange like the Amazings while using emerging technologies? What will the 50 year olds of today, with their wearable tech, look like and act like in 20 years? Will they be naturally more digitally social? Will their use of technology make up for day to day face to face interactions? Will they be better at staying connected with their families around the world?

These are all questions we should be answering to as designers. Technology has a role to play but perhaps it’s a more subtle one than technologists realise. A good old user-centered approach should dictate what gets designed. As a result we may find that sensors and connected products are best placed as touch points of new services as opposed to the soul focus of design.

Insurance in the internet of things: the Future Stigma of Data


In May, Ana Bradley joined my consultancy as a Partner and one of the first clients we worked on together was Imago TechMedia. We helped them plan an event for the insurance sector around the internet of things in a half day workshop. The insurance sector is one I’d recently been looking at anyway for a piece of strategy work I’m doing with the BBC R&D North Lab in MediaCityUK. In light of Cory’s post tonight  though I thought I’d share some quick thoughts on the matter.

For the past 4 years, insurance companies have been using connected hardware to offer flexible and dynamically generated premiums in the car industry.

  • In 2010, MyKey was a feature on all new Ford cars which allowed parents to lend their car to their teenager and set parameters of usage.
  • In Germany, all new cars have “black boxes” by default since a government ruling supported this in 2012.
  • These days, companies like Ingenie set up the box on any car for the young driver (17-25 year olds) in your household and charge you premiums according to their driving behaviour

Now they are looking beyond cars and into the world of healthcare insurance (after all they’d been tracking your gym attendance) and what better consumer products to exploit than the emerging bubble of wearables?

This sounds good in principle: if you’re good, and you exercise you premium will be low. But what if you’re bad for just one week because you got dumped by a significant other? You spend less time in the gym and so are automatically penalised, even if you’re doing ok overall.

What if you’re really ill? Then the insurance company might offer you a plethora of connected devices, all in the name of making you pay less while they (via the product company) collect more and more data. If we’ve got issues with the NHS holding our data, well I’m not sure we’d trust insurance providers, after all private companies who own the devices can do whatever they like with the data. Remember that back in 2011, TomTom sold its satnav data to the Dutch police who then used it to set speeding traps and retro-actively send speeding tickets. 

So people start to panic and say “No I don’t want to be traced”. So they are charged more.

And this is where a new divide occurs: a new class system determined by data. The poor are tracked and traced while the rich can afford to pay more for their premiums and for anonymity by extension. This also means wearable companies will be tainted by that industry and will come to mean “i’m too poor to pay or ill for expensive insurance so I wear a connected device”.

Might sound a little Adam Curtis, but that future is what worries me about insurance companies.