A Liverpool engineering firm is looking to bring forward its latest tech solution to combat loneliness to help millions of people left isolated by coronavirus.

Husband and wife team Jen and Pat Fenner, of DefProc, originally invented their ‘Push to Talk’ device to connect people in communities who struggle to socialise, like unpaid family carers and the elderly.

However, the COVID-19 lockdown has left millions of people isolated and the pair are appealing for help from manufacturers to help them scale production of their Push to Talk invention to help reach those most in need.

36-year-old Jen Fenner, who is DefProc’s Managing Director, said: “Nobody could have predicted COVID-19 and the UK-wide lockdown that has left millions of vulnerable people isolated and lonely. We feel that Push to Talk could make a huge difference to people’s lives everywhere.”

Push to Talk was first developed in 2014 as part of a health and social care hack-day arranged for Liverpool City Council. One of the themes was social isolation and loneliness in the elderly population. 

Push to Talk has been through various iterations and even went on to win a small Innovate UK grant to conduct a small trial.  In 2018, Push to Talk was identified as a use case that could be adapted to suit the Liverpool Health and Social Care 5G Testbed. 

The purpose of the testbed was to look at how 5G can solve some of the problems facing health and social care and could the use of newly available technology help. 

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The chosen testbed area was Kensington and Fairfield, which has the lowest rate of connectivity in the city and is one of the most deprived. Many people in the area did not have broadband and Push to Talk provided a vital communication outlet.

Push to Talk was then redeveloped to utilise a new technology called LoRaWAN, which stands for Long Range Wide Area Network. LoRaWAN is a network that consists of gateways mounted on buildings, they can receive a small amount of data over a long range radio signal from devices up to 2km away. This technology allows for small amounts of data to be sent from a device to the internet without Bluetooth, mobile data, Wi-Fi or broadband. 

The device is a similar size to a small alarm clock. It is ergonomically designed so that people with dexterity issues do not face a barrier to using the service.

Push to Talk is free to users, it is designed as a referral service so that local authorities and charities can refer people they think will benefit from it. To have access to the service, people just need a working phone line. Alongside the device, the company has developed a smartphone app. This is how local authorities and charities can refer people to Push to Talk. 

“We’ve been working on Push to Talk for five years but the problem we were setting out to alleviate is now a hundred times bigger because of COVID-19 so we’ve decided to put the effort of the business into rolling this service out,” said Jen Fenner.  

“For these cases, we have the LoRaWAN button so that there is an option for those who need it but don’t have connectivity at home.”

Explaining how it works she said: “Push to Talk is very simple to use, whether it is the button or the app, it works the same way. When a person is ready to talk to someone, they press their button; then they will get a phone call that connects them to someone else who also wants to talk, and has also just pressed their button. The people are matched randomly so this gives them each the opportunity to talk to many different people, but to know that they are talking with someone who they have something in common with.”

Push to Talk has been used as part of a trial where 60 people took part and is set to be rolled out further in the coming weeks. DefProc is working with Liverpool City Council to move this forward as they have identified that there is an urgent need for a service like this.

Jen Fenner added: “We know Push to Talk is helping a small number of people but we know the technology could be adapted to help literally millions of people left isolated by COVID-19. 

“What we are looking for is a manufacturer that can produce enough to cover those that have been identified as requiring ‘shielding’. The device is not designed as a social network, where anyone might join, but a closed network of people who are most vulnerable during this time.”

To make Push to Talk available at a national level, DefProc is looking for a manufacturer that can produce enough devices to cover those that have been identified as requiring shielding. DefProc can produce around 40 buttons a week, and Liverpool has an estimated 50,000 vulnerable people who are shielding.

DefProc is 10 years old this year and has worked with the likes of The Science Museum Group, BBC R&D and The Environment Agency.