The Forum

Loneliness is deadly—but hard to spot. Here's how a simple app is revolutionising treatment in the UK.

by Paul Trigonoplos and Vidal Seegobin

Editor's note: This blog was updated on July 25, 2019.

Loneliness has been in the spotlight lately for its serious health implications—studies show that intense social isolation equates to the same health risks of smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day, and that it raises the risk of death by over 25%.

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Thankfully, with this research has come progress. Previously a taboo subject, loneliness has been deemed an epidemic, elevated to the national policy level in several countries; Australia formed its Coalition to End Loneliness in 2016, and earlier in 2018, the UK added a minister of loneliness to its parliament.

Taking loneliness seriously is a promising start, but there is still a key gap to address. We know that convening interventions around lonely people can give them higher quality of life, but what happens when you can't identify this lonely population to begin with? Often, these people are hiding in plain sight, with no obvious, outward signs that support is needed.

An app to pinpoint loneliness

Enter Careview, a new UK app revolutionising how support workers identify and connect with lonely people. The app, developed by the Urban Sustainable Development Lab and Leeds County Council, is surprisingly simple. Upon opening it, public health team members are greeted with a map of their nearby area. By simply tapping a heart icon, they can drop an anonymous pin and report a concern where they see signs of loneliness in the community. Signs include closed house curtains, postage piling up, or a house in disrepair. 

With this data, the app creates a 'heat map' of the city, block-by-block, showcasing where loneliness is most prevalent. This is an even more local version of a similar map that came out in 2016 which calculated the risk of social isolation throughout England at the county level.

Careview's heat map provides social service outreach teams a more targeted focus for their resources. Previously, when teams went door-to-door to hand out flyers offering loneliness support, there was one response for every 100 flyers. Now, because the map offers a data-driven strategy for whose doors to knock on first, that number is up to 47 per 100. Since most social services operate on shoestring budgets, these warm leads have a tremendous impact. 

What's next for Careview?

Careview's trial just ended in September, and Leeds is conducting a formal analysis on the pilot now (the app will remain in use in the meantime). The initial results have been promising, though. Reports of loneliness have skyrocketed, and there are numerous anecdotes of workers flagging at-risk homes that led to life-changing interventions which would otherwise never have happened. Further, Leeds' fire service is now looking to adapt the app for their own use, enabling citizens and workers to flag run-down buildings at-risk of fire.

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