Empowering children to change the world

Three teenagers supporting people with dyslexia, a group of Rohingya children receiving digital lessons, or a mental health app to combat suicide: the Tech4Good Awards organised by AbilityNet showcased worldwide projects pushing children to reach their full potential. We speak to some of the inspiring winners

Author: Beatriz Valero de Urquía

Today’s youth was born in a digital age. According to the Global Web Index, 98% of children between the ages of eight and 18 own a smartphone. They are the first generation to receive education through remote learning and can't imagine a world without the internet. But what happens when you’re born to a world you can’t access? Physical and learning disabilities, language barriers and socioeconomic status are only some of the barriers that young people encounter when trying to access the internet. However, when most schooling and employment is done online, accessibility becomes a right, rather than a request. More and more, people and organisations are coming together to bridge that gap and turn technology from a privileged space to a tool to help those that are most in need. Every day, new projects are born that aim to use technology to improve children’s access to education and healthcare. And that is exactly the type of projects that AbilityNet celebrates in its annual Tech4Good Awards. AbilityNet is a UK charity that helps disabled people use technology at home, at work and in education. It has collaborated with companies such as Barclays, helping it make its work environment and services more accessible, for example, by improving its app and allowing customers to get cash delivered to their homes. However, the ability to make a change is not reserved for huge companies. Everyone can contribute to making the digital world more accessible. That was the reason why Mark Walker, Head of Marketing at AbilityNet, set out to create the Tech4Good Awards, the first of its kind, with the support of BT and other sponsors. “We came up with the idea almost 12 years ago now,” Walker recalls. “And in one of our first meetings, a person at BT said: ‘I think there already is one’. And then she looked up and said: ‘No, there isn't. Okay, we’ll help you make it happen’. And that’s what they’ve done since then.

Sonia, Justine and Dorothy from Dimming Dyslexia and their teacher Mrs Roy

“The aim remains the same: to shine a light on people who are doing good things. We want to celebrate, to learn, and to support those people to do more.” Although this year the awards ceremony did not take place at its usual venue at BT Tower, and the winners were announced over Zoom, the quality of their projects has not been affected by the pandemic. In fact, many of the projects recognised in 2020 addressed a very important topic for the COVID-19 world: how to use technology to help disadvantaged children. The most common cause of reading, writing and spelling difficulties in children is dyslexia, which affects an estimated 700 million people worldwide, according to Dyslexia. After seeing their classmate struggle to read their class notes and textbooks, three 14-year-olds from Sacred Heart High School in London decided to do something about it. Dorothy, Sonia and Justine are the winners of the 2020 BT Young Pioneers Award, which celebrates young people using technology to make an impact in society. The three friends have created Dimming Dyslexia, an app that analyses text and resources and translates them into a format that is easier for dyslexic students to understand, such as cartoons, videos or specific fonts. “We want to help people by making educational things more comprehensive and easier to understand,” says Justine. “But it’s not just people in secondary school,” adds Dorothy. “We have spoken to lots of people who have said that it would be a really useful thing for them to have in their everyday life, and they really wished they had it when they were younger.”

"The aim remains the same: to shine a light on people who are doing good things. We want to celebrate, to learn, and to support those people to do more" - Mark Walker, AbilityNet

Their teacher Rotna Roy expresses how “impressed and proud” she is of the girls and their passion for STEM. “If it wasn’t for competitions like the BT Young Pioneer Award organised by Tech4Good the girls would not be able to demonstrate their resilience, determination, growth mindset and enthusiasm and I don’t think this project would be as successful as it is now!” she says. “Now we're working with BT to help us advertise and develop the app,” Sonia explains. As part of the award, they have received £10,000 to fund the project as well as access BT experts who will help the young girls develop and scale the app across the country. Nonetheless, what the girls also take from the awards is the motivation to keep innovating. “I think winning awards is a reminder that an idea that we've had can actually be made into something,” says Justine. “STEM right now is a very male-dominated field, so these types of competitions encourage you to do things that perhaps you may have not found interest in at first.” The Dimming Dyslexia team is proof that no matter your age, anyone can make a difference. Walker explains that this was the goal of the award. “The more that you can get people to hear them talk, I think the more that you realise that there are a lot of people doing really interesting things. It encourages you to find out what's going on in your local community.” Your local area might be London, or it could be a little further away; like a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh. After decades of persecution and displacement from Myanmar, a series of ethnic cleansing attacks in 2017 forced over 750,000 Rohingya people to seek refuge in Bangladesh, in what became the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world. Now, the half a million Rohingya children that live in the Bangladeshi refugee camps lack access to education and child-friendly facilities and face the prospects of child marriage, trafficking and labour. Children on the Edge, the charity created by Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, has set up a digital learning program to provide access to education to 7,500 Rohingya refugee students and 1,400 slum-dwelling children in the Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar slum communities and Doharazi enclaves in Bangladesh. Its program was the winner of the Tech4Good Education Award, sponsored by Lenovo. John Littleton, the Asia Regional Manager for Children on the Edge, has seen the project grow from its inception to what it is today. He has worked with the Rohingya refugees since 2009, back when teaching them was banned and schools had to be disguised as homes. He recalls how the 2017 genocide “changed everything”.

“After the genocide took place, a million people crossed the border,” he says. “The whole international community paid attention to it, and we got formal approval to work there. But, after the dust settled, the Bangladeshi government realised that these people weren’t going anywhere, but it didn’t want them to stay in the country, so it limited them in terms of education.” To avoid assimilation, the Bangladeshi government stipulated that the Rohingya refugees could only learn in Burmese or English, two languages that neither the refugee children nor their teachers could understand. Children on the Edge was the first organisation on the terrain that decided to take action to address this problem by creating video lessons in the Rohingya local language, that teachers can play at the beginning of each lesson. “We eventually found LG battery-powered projectors that would last long enough to do both the morning and afternoon sessions,” Littleton says. “And when the internet was cut off in the camp, we got broadband so that the teachers could come and download the lessons in our office and charge the projectors after the school day was over.” Although digital lessons don’t require high technology, Littleton explains that this project would not have been possible five years ago. “The bandwidth wasn’t there,” he says. “High-speed internet wasn’t available. The batteries on the projectors would last half an hour and that was it. There were so many barriers that we had to work through, and it was only over the last 18 months or so that we finally saw that this was a real possibility.” However, the best part of the programme is that it gives the children a voice. To tackle isolation and allow the children to express themselves, Children on the Edge has created Moja Kids, a platform where the children film their own videos and share their day-to-day lives with children in other camps or community schools. “These children are confined in a refugee camp,” Littleton says. “They can't leave. So for them to see kids who speak the same language as them who are from the host community, just up the road, but have challenges to have to work as well, have dreams and ideas as well; it was a transformative moment.”

"These children are confined in a refugee camp. They can't leave. So for them to see kids who speak the same language as them who are from the host community, just up the road, but have challenges to have to work as well, have dreams and ideas as well; it was a transformative moment" John Littleton, Children on the Edge

Littleton stresses that the project isn’t a “promotional” or “fundraising” tool, but a way for the children to share stories and gain inspiration and hope from meeting other kids just like them, but that live a few miles, or even continents away. “We’ve recently brought on board our first international partner in Cambodia, and they made a video about plastic pollution in their slum communities. And guess what? There's a huge problem with plastic pollution in the Bangladeshi slums as well. And so they shared some of the things they were doing with their recycled plastic, which was really encouraging and interesting for the kids.” Refugee children from Congo in Uganda and Dalit children in Northern India, all gain hope from knowing they’re not alone. Littleton explains that his team has six countries lined up to get involved with Moja Kids, connecting together the different locations in which Children on the Edge operates. After all, struggle knows no borders. The Moja Kids platform might be low-tech, but it is a hands-on, direct and scalable solution that meets the needs of so many children in these refugee communities all across the world. “It’s so successful because it started with the people first, rather than the technology,” Walker says. The focus on people rather than technology is also very present in MeeTwo, the 2019 winners of the Connected Society Award, sponsored by Samsung. Although one in eight teenagers has a mental health problem, 76% of them never receive any treatment, making suicide the leading cause of death for young people in the United Kingdom. MeeTwo wants to break the mental health stigma in children through a peer-support mental health app. “It's clear that if we could help young people to have healthier minds, it would provide them with the resilience and the tools that they need to then become healthy adults,” says Kerstyn Comley, MeeTwo Co-Founder and Co-CEO. The MeeTwo app is anonymous and fully moderated, so every post gets checked before going live. This allows the moderators to identify potential issues that might be too complex for peer community support, which are then addressed by in-house counsellors. The app already has over 40,000 users, 35% of whom are male.

“That's particularly important because boys are so hard to reach,” Comley says. “We all in some way are prejudiced. And the fact that the app is anonymous levels the playing field for anybody to be able to post anything.” The company has also launched MeeTwo Connect, a service in which organisations and schools can include a specific portal in the app to make their mental health services more accessible to young people. Moreover, through MeeTwo Connect, NHS Trusts and schools can gain access to anonymised data on the main issues that young people struggle with. “During the lockdown, we saw a significant increase in usage,” Comley says. “But also, in the first few days of lockdown, we saw a lot more posting where people were clearly panicked, anxious and worried. Since then, there has been a steady decrease in anxiety.” MeeTwo is currently undergoing several trials in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, the Anna Freud Centre and several schools in the Yeovil area in south-west England, overseen by Somerset Clinical Commissioning Group. The goal is to show the success of preventive mental health care and its relation to social media. “I think it's really interesting that it's possibly the first time in human existence, where young are being exposed and learning something brand-new at exactly the same time as the adults,” she says. “Normally if you look back through all the new developments and inventions in history, adults have the opportunity to get to grips with it first and pass that knowledge down to the young people. With social media, it's the other way around.” Education is now more than ever reliant on technology and only by ensuring that the children of tomorrow have access to the resources they need to thrive, will they be able to become successful adults and overcome the many challenges that life will put in their way. Competitions like the Tech4Good Awards showcase projects that have this goal in mind and celebrate society’s commitment to making technology an enabler, not a barrier, to success. “I think we represent a specific way of using tech,” Walker says. “It’s not about the actual tech itself. Mostly what we are impressed by is the way that people are using that tech to do good. And anybody can do that. Anybody can just shift a little bit the way they think about things to make a change.”