Technology can make the world a better place, and the best and most helpful tech ideas are celebrated at the annual Tech4Good awards supported by BT.

One of the categories of the AbilityNetTech4Good awards is IT Volunteer of the Year, which salutes the work people do within the community.

The 2016 winner was Maureen Johnston, who dramatically improved the communications system at The Silver Line, a charity dedicated to help older people deal with loneliness.

We spoke to her to find out a bit about her work, the charity, and how it feels to win the award.

“I was stunned and hugely honoured to be entered and even more so to be picked as the winner. It was lovely that The Silver Line wanted me to be recognised and it just shows what a super team we have here,” Maureen said.

“I’m only sorry that my Mum, who died in April this year, didn’t know, but my 83-year-old dad is proud enough for both of them!”

Getting involved

Maureen was looking for volunteering opportunities involving technology and older people, and following an introduction to Sophie Andrews, CEO of the charity, she started volunteering.

“The Silver Line was running a pilot in one region, and I offered a ‘couple of days’ a week to manage their national launch,” Maureen explained.  

At launch The Silver Line had an in-bound call centre, but the charity wanted to set up one for volunteers to offer telephone friendship to older people, without either party having to pay. Both phone numbers needed to be confidential, calls needed to be recorded, and made from the volunteer’s home to the home of the elderly person. 

Maureen Johnston with Tech4Good award

Maureen helped develop a cloud-based Virtual Call Centre solution. This involved finding the right system and developing it so volunteers who aren’t technology savvy can use it.

“It works by allowing our volunteers to log in to a secure system with a username and password over the public internet.  Once this is accessed, the system rings the volunteer’s home phone, then rings the older person, and connects the two together for their weekly 30-minute chat.  The system records the call and when they are finished, they simply hang up,” Maureen explained.      

One of the oldest volunteers is in their nineties and makes weekly calls using a tablet. To date 2,500 volunteers use Maureen’s system.

Maureen’s work also saved the charity money.  Being a relatively new charity worked to The Silver Line’s advantage, allowing it to take advantage of modern technology such as the cloud.

“I have helped The Silver Line take advantage of the cloud from day one, saving not only in hardware and maintenance costs, but in IT support personnel,” said Maureen.

Technology and the elderly

Using technology helped The Silver Line be more efficient, but in day-to-day life, Maureen says the elderly still face barriers when using technology: “The cost, the fear factor, the ‘kit’ involved, the language of technology, and let’s not forget the multiple passwords needed and the scams that take advantage of lack of knowledge.

“As people get older, some relish the challenge of trying new things, others seek comfort in the familiar.”

For elderly people, less familiar with technology, speaking to a person provides reassurance, which is why a charity like The Silver Line has a telephone helpline.

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“If you live alone and have a panic attack at three in the morning, posting something on Facebook, emailing or tweeting (assuming that person can use these options) just isn’t the same as being able to talk directly to someone,” Maureen said.

“If we could visit the thousands of people who call us every week we would love to do so, but that will never be possible.  So we do what we can with the technology most of our callers grew up with.”

The future of The Silver Line

Maureen anticipates The Silver Line’s services to evolve further: “The current older generation is probably the least experienced with technology. But the generations behind them will be much more ‘tech savvy’ so we expect to adapt our services in years to come.”

Back to the present day, Maureen still works at The Silver Line as director of information systems, where she is currently developing a volunteer intranet: “The ‘couple of days’ is now more like five or six days a week.  But I still love it.”

View a full list of the AbilityNet Tech4Good winners.

The Silver Line offers a free, 24-hour helpline on 0800 4 70 80 90. Find out more information about the charity, including volunteering, here.