Meet the women leading Hestia’s digital innovation

Eve Critchley (left), Digital Innovation Lead, and Gemma Chandler (right), Operational Project Lead, are leading Hestia's digital projects, figuring out new ways to support people in crisis and using digital tools to prevent people reaching the point of crisis. This International Women's Day, they tell us a bit more about what their roles entail.

What digital projects are you currently working on?

Gemma: I’m working on increasing digital inclusion across our services, developing a development programme for staff to enable them to be better equipped to deliver support digitally and increasing service knowledge on how to utilise different digital platforms. We have digital champion volunteers who work alongside our service users who are not very familiar with using messaging and video platforms and help to increase their confidence in using them.

Eve: I’m particularly excited about our Bright Sky app and website, which help people who are experiencing domestic abuse understand their situation and find a safe route to support. Last year we did a lot of user testing and research and that’s informed a new development road map, so we are looking at a major upgrade for the app this year.

How can digital platforms be helpful in facilitating recovery?

Eve: It’s increasingly in all areas of our lives. It offers you more choice in accessing services; it puts you much more in control. For the people we support, that choice and control is a big part of recovery and supports their independence. Some of our service users are co-producing online activities with staff to help other service users feel less alone. Our Better Lives Forum members are getting together online. Digital helps to build on the strengths people have.

Gemma: I’m working on a project that will allow service users to have more opportunity to contribute to their own care and support plans. Also, what we’ve learnt during Covid is that by using digital tools we can make support much more accessible to people and a lot more flexible to meet their needs. We’ve seen an increase in interaction with some people we support, such as younger people who prefer to be communicated with via messaging rather than with phone calls or via face-to-face support. Some service users have been much more comfortable using digital.

We’ve been able to increase the attendance to group activities by making them digital too, especially for people who maybe have jobs or children at home, or for those who find it difficult to attend groups in person due to anxieties.

Have attitudes towards digital platforms shifted due to Covid?

Eve: When I first started with Hestia and talked with staff about what might be possible with digital platforms, there was quite a lot of fear of it getting in the way of human connections, which is at the core of our support. Now, there is more understanding that, for some people, an online interaction might feel more comfortable. It’s really sustained people, particularly those who are isolated or living in difficult home environments. For people in those situations, being connected to others digitally might be the thing that gets them through.

It’s important we don’t assume everyone now feels comfortable with technology. For some people, it’s made them feel even more isolated. We have been trying to demystify digital. Our digital champion volunteers have been helping service users who want to try something new on digital, creating a safe space for them to do so. Once someone has unburdened themselves and given it a go, we’ve seen people open to what might be possible.

Gemma: We’ve had a really good pick up from people supported by our older adults services, which is great. We were forced to change our attitudes to digital to a certain extent as now you can’t do certain things without digital access, even things such as shopping. Digital support needed to be in place to help people but it’s also allowed people we support to use it socially and for their own personal enjoyment.

How can digital be used as a tool to prevent crisis, not just support recovery after crisis?

Eve: With our domestic abuse work, reaching people before someone is in an unsafe situation is important, helping them to recognise what is happening and to look at support options, if they feel comfortable in doing so. With tools like Bright Sky, you can start to recognise that some things you’re experiencing might be abuse - that might be the first step to getting out of that situation. Similarly, for friends, family members and professionals, Bright Sky can help them to feel more confident in broaching a conversation if they are worried someone is experiencing domestic abuse.

What one thing has stuck with you through your time with Hestia’s Digital Innovation team?

Gemma: One of the older people in our enhanced dementia care service had never used technology; it was difficult to contact them on their landline, let alone anything else. We were able to get them a tablet and spent time with them setting up and email address – that enabled them to start having video calls with their family while isolating, which was incredible. Seeing someone who you think is going to find technology difficult, who has so many risks associated with isolation, able to make sustainable and meaningful contact with their family – that was lovely. That is what I’m here to do.

What does International Women’s Day mean to you?

Eve: The theme this year is #ChooseToChallenge. I want to celebrate the achievements and courage that the many people we support have shown over the last year – survivors of domestic abuse and modern slavery, and people accessing support and speaking up under really challenging circumstances. My hope for International Women’s Day is that for these conversations continue, and that we don’t forget about these issues once the immediate crisis of Covid is over.

Gemma: International Women’s Day is a time where can pull people together to recognise what equalities and inequalities exist around us and around the whole world. People can live in bubbles where they aren’t aware of other people’s struggles. It’s a day to make people aware of them.