Speech to the People’s Powerhouse event hosted by Inclusive Economy Liverpool – 24/10/19

Speech to the People’s Powerhouse event hosted by Inclusive Economy Liverpool – 24/10/19

Hi there, as Patrick just said, I’m Helen from Little Sandbox, we run tech clubs for kids and more recently opened a community makerspace at Norris Green Library.

Today I’m here to tell you about how we developed a person centred approach to digital inclusion, by exploring how digital tools complement traditional crafts.

Digital inclusion has been a bit of an obsession of ours for quite some time. Both myself and my Little Sandbox co-founder, Chris Huffee, have in the past delivered digital inclusion projects and we were getting frustrated that millions of pounds are invested in the same old programmes and yet, somehow there’s still a digital inclusion problem.

I believe we’ve reached a point where, the only people left who can’t use computers are those people who don’t want to. And no amount of basic IT courses are going to reach them.

This year the Centre for Ageing Better and The Good Things Foundation produced a report that estimates 91% of those who lack basic digital skills are over 55. They concluded that the same old approach won’t work.

Finally! Someone who is speaking our language!

We have been advocating for something different for a few years, because we believed that there was merit in using a more creative approach to get people interested in digital skills.

I suppose it comes down to a question of what we mean by digital. When people talk to us about the problem of digital inclusion they talk about “access to the internet” “Using social media” “Mobile phones”. Which all sounds a bit dry and boring.

When we talk about digital inclusion we think Digital photography, 3D printing and Making things with lasers. Which sounds loads more exciting.

2 years ago we took part in some consultation sessions to help shape the LCR digital inclusion strategy. We sat around a table with housing associations, councillors, the DWP, age concern and other national charities. We were asked: What’s the problem.

After much discussion, I can sum the problem as one simple issue: older people can’t use online forms.

That’s it. That’s the problem.

But that’s not a problem for the people who lack digital skills. They don’t care. They’re quite happy filling in forms by hand – they’ve been doing it for decades – they’re happy ringing people up, they’re happy having face to face conversations. Their lack of basic IT skills is not a problem for them. It is a problem for the service provider wanting to move to an automated system, which is perhaps more efficient, will save time, cut down on staff costs & increase profits.

But it excludes people, particularity older people and it forces them to learn skills they don’t want in order to access services they’re entitled to.

I mean, when you think about it like that, it’s just morally wrong, isn’t it?

So how important is it, really, that older people learn basic IT skills? Whenever I ask that question of people they generally say that using facebook would give them a connection to the outside world and help them feel less lonely.

Which is all well and good, but given what we know about social media, and how it is so easily manipulated, would you want to subject your parents or grandparents to it?

But let’s be realistic, the world is changing, technology is advancing at an almost alarming rate. Like it or not, having digital skills is going to be useful, if not necessary, to everyone.

But if decision makers are committed to reaching a point where everyone has some basic digital skills, then they have to get on board with the idea that one size does not fit all.

Little Sandbox a small social enterprise based in North Liverpool and we don’t have much clout. Yet. We made lots of suggestions around digital inclusion, we talked about digital art, making, we suggested they involve makerspaces in their plans. And I believe LCR has invested in opening a makerspace in Prescot. Which is great news. But it would also be great if we could see some investment in the makerspaces we have in Liverpool, because in the current economy, we are all at risk and we could all be doing so much more in our communities with a bit of support.

We realised, no one was going to take our suggestions seriously, until we could prove they worked. We’d been here before, when we were trying to open our kids tech club, we just needed one funder to take a chance on us.

Eventually about 12 months ago, we successfully applied for some “Make:Shift:Do” funding from the Craft Council which was for pilot projects that introduced traditional crafters to digital tools. We saw this as an opportunity to put our idea into practice.

We spoke to the library manager at Norris Green Library and asked her, which craft books were most popular among visitors. She told us it was knitting and crochet.

Okay, you might think it’s a bit of a stretch to use knitting and crochet to teach people how to use a computer.

But that’s exactly what we did!

We started a knitting group. And we advertised it as an opportunity to enjoy knitting and crochet and have a go at some of our digital tools.

The first week 2 sisters came in and said “We’re not interested in your digital tools, that’s not for us, we just want to knit and have a natter.” Ok, no problem.

Week by week the group grew to about 15 regular members. We realised that, more than anything else, this was an opportunity for them to socialise, they quickly bonded, some of the group came because they wanted to learn different techniques, some came because they were lonely, some came because they needed something to help them get through the pain of losing their husband. The group has provided much needed support to older women at risk of social isolation and depression, and given them a sense of belonging and purpose.

But it’s also given them a sense of confidence around digital skills and increased their ability to engage with the ever expanding digital world.

After a few weeks one of the group brought in a cardigan she’d knitted. Chris suggested she could make her own buttons and so he showed her a basic template and how to cut them on the laser cutter.

The following week all of the group made their own buttons.

One of the group wanted to make a pom pom for a hat she’d knitted and needed something to wrap wool around. Chris showed her how to create the shape on the computer and then cut it using the laser cutter.

Then of course everyone in the group needed a pom pom maker too…

One of the group said she wanted to make something for her granddaughter but she’s too old for knitted stuff, she’s just interested in unicorns. So we suggested she make a tshirt with a unicorn on it, and introduced her to the vinyl cutter and heat press.

The following week they were cutting slogans on the vinyl cutter and heat pressing them on to their knitting bags.

Another week, we showed them how to print onto fabric using the sublimation printer. And then we got them to sew in some LEDs using conductive thread.

Each week, we find out what they want, what matters to them, and we show them a digital solution.

The group has been going for nearly a year now, we ran out of funding about 6 months ago but we haven’t got the heart to tell them to stop coming. They wouldn’t listen to us anyway. The 2 sisters who came to that first session, they now teach newcomers how to use the vinyl cutter to make their own t-shirts and have recently learned how to format images for laser engraving. They’re working up towards 3D design so they can 3D print their own buttons.

One of the group has joined our maker business programme – she knits and crochets so much stuff she wants to start selling it online – and she wants to manage that herself.

I noticed recently that pretty much all of the group – which ranges in age from late 50s through to early 90s, all now have mobile phones… and know how to use them! If that’s not evidence of success, I don’t know what is.

The lovely thing about this approach to digital inclusion, is that they don’t even realise they’re learning to use a computer. What we’ve shown them is how to use digital tools to enhance their hobbies. But in doing so, they’ve learned how to use a mouse, a keyboard, how to search for things online and how to navigate the menu systems on different applications, And I wouldn’t be surprised if they could all complete an online form now aswell.

Thank you

My Selection Speech to Mossley Hill BLP

My Selection Speech to Mossley Hill BLP

First of all, thank you for shortlisting me and giving me this opportunity to introduce myself: I’m Helen and I want to be the next Labour Councillor for Mossley Hill.

I’ve been working in the voluntary and community sector for 14 years. In that time I’ve worked with children and young people as a playworker, I’ve taught adult art classes in community centres and I’ve supported charities and community groups with digital marketing.

Before I started working in the voluntary sector, I didn’t pay that much attention to politics, but as I’ve watched the impact of budget cuts on public services, Ive seen how the sector steps in to provide the support people need.

In 2010 I was facing redundancy from my job as a communications officer and I decided I wanted to start my own social enterprise centred around digital inclusion and community engagement. So I did, and 9 years later it’s still going. Since starting that business I’ve picked up a wide range of skills, such as bookkeeping, bid writing, admin, marketing and project management – all skill that I think will be used=ful in the role of a Councillor.

I joined the Labour party in 2015 because, after 5 years of the coalition government, for me, Jeremy Corbyn represented that something different the country needed to repair the damage of austerity. And after a few, eventful, years in politics, I felt being a member wasn’t enough. I wanted to do something. So I got involved with my CLP, joined them on marches and protests and helped with leafleting and door knocking in the local election. Now I feel I want to do something more. So here I am.

The most important thing, for me, is community. Creating a safe and vibrant place for people to live, work, and play. I can only do so much through my work, and that’s why I want to be on the city council: to help keep our services going, make sure our libraries stay open, protect people’s jobs and ensure our green spaces are there for future generations to enjoy.

Mossley Hill is a beautiful part of Liverpool. It reminds me a lot of where I grew up in Crosby, Blundellsands ward. Both have high education attainment, low crime rate and long life expectancy. And while, relatively speaking, it is more affluent than other parts of the city, there are pockets of deprivation here that are largely overlooked. Those residents especially, need Labour Councillors to make sure they’re not forgotten, to fight on their behalf and ensure their voice is heard in the town hall.

So if you select me tonight, and I really hope you do, I will work with [the current Labour councillors] to promote Labour values, engage with residents to understand what their priorities are and win the confidence of voters.

The campaign to retain that Labour seat in Mossley Hill starts tonight, and I know it’s not going to be easy, but I can’t wait to get started and I look forward to working with you all to make it happen.

Pleased to say I was selected and will stand for election in May 2020.

Public Talk – Ignite @ Makefest 2018 Nerd: An overlooked minority.

Public Talk – Ignite @ Makefest 2018 Nerd: An overlooked minority.

Here’s the full transcript of the talk Ignite talk I did at Liverpool Makefest in June 2018. 

My talk starts at 6:18

Hi, I’m Helen and I’m a Co-founder of Little Sandbox, which is a Kids Tech club here in Liverpool. 

When Chris and I first started talking about kids tech, it was initially inspired by the impending skills shortage in the tech sector.

That same year, the Government  recognised the problem and added computing to the national curriculum, which we thought was great, coz it meant kids would be introduced to tech from an early age. 

But we realised 2 things, firstly, tech needed to be seen as exciting in order to attract kids who might go on to be the future stars of the tech sector. 

Secondly, girls need to be encouraged as much as boys because when only 16% of the workforce is female, it’s a bit of a no brainer to make the sector more accessible to women in order to meet the demand for skilled workers. 

Coz trust me on this one, girls are brilliant at this stuff, they just need to be encouraged to try it. 

But then it occurred to us that there’s already a load of kids into tech, we just don’t see them because they prefer to be alone with a computer than in the company of others.

 Their interests aren’t stereotypical, they’re not into football, or dance or drama. They get labelled: nerds or geeks by kids who think that’s an insult – which is silly, we all know nerds are the coolest. 

They feel uncomfortable at social clubs, and find it hard to fit in. 

As a child, I didn’t fit in. I preferred my own company. I used to spend my breaktimes alone reading. So I was one of the weird kids. And I didn’t want to be a weird kid, I didn’t want to be one of the nerdy, swotty kids, the clever boring kids. I wanted to be a fun cool kid, so that the fun cool kids would stop picking on me. 

I made a conscious decision to try to fit in, I stopped trying so hard in lessons, I played with the other kids, I pretended I was enjoying myself when inside I was wishing I could just slope off to a quiet corner by myself.

 In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t, I wish I’d followed my instincts, embraced my intelligence and realised that relatively speaking school is such a short period of our lives and there’s so much more beyond it. 

 And I hope that the kids we work with will be inspired, knowing they’re not alone, to continue to stay true to themselves. 

We realised that rather than wanting to encourage normal kids to get into tech, we actually wanted to support those nerdy kids who are a bit different to the others, who have a hard time at school, and help them  find their people and realise that who they are is just fine. 

One thing we’ve found, which hadn’t occurred to us when we started, was that our club is quite popular with kids who are on the autism spectrum. 

 Because the documented traits such as photographic memory, recognising patterns, and requiring specific information  makes some people with ASD ideally suited to programming. 

But one of their barriers is social anxiety and finding it difficult to work as part of a team. Which is potentially a huge loss to the tech sector. 

But Several of our parents have expressed surprise at how quickly their kids settle at Little Sandbox, they engage with the activities, work with others and they’re making friends. And it helps that they’re surrounded by tech, computers, things that are unambiguous, thst either work or don’t work, are either on or off. It’s feels like a safe space because they can hide behind a computer until they feel comfortable enough to speak to the kid next to them. 

The key thing about Little Sandbox is that everyone is welcome and everyone is free to be themselves without fear of ridicule. And parents have told us that they can feel that, as soon as they walk through the door.

Maybe that’s because both Chris and I know what it feels like to not fit in, so we make sure no one else feels like that when they’re at our club. 

And here’s the thing about diversity: We’re all digitally connected through social media. We can all hide who we are behind an avatar and an online persona. And we are quick to like people we’ve never met and know nothing about. 

Why shouldn’t that translate to real life? It matters not, their age, gender, race, ability, sexuality or even if they’re a massive nerd, when they’re hidden behind a computer. So why should it matter in person? 

It shouldn’t. And at Little Sandbox it doesn’t. 

On the knocker: first time experience on the doorstep

On the knocker: first time experience on the doorstep

It’s the one thing about which I’ve always thought “not a chance”. The idea of knocking on doors asking people to vote, filled me with dread. Mainly because, I hate it when people knock on my door unexpectedly. If I’m not expecting a delivery from Sizzlas then it can only be someone trying to get me to switch energy supplier or support a charity. “Hello, saw your cat in the window, I guess you’re an animal person? I’m from the Dogs Trust…” Well I’m specifically a cat person, goodbye! (Not that I don’t want to support charities, I do, I just want to choose them for myself, also, I prefer small, local charities rather than big national charities, if you have the capacity to knock on doors asking for donors, you’re probably not as much in need as a local community centre, feeding and clothing people and providing much needed support that this sham of a government has taken away from us).

So the thought of being one of those people, disturbing someone while they’re watching Corrie or putting the kids to bed, causes a spasm in my cringing pipes. I just couldn’t imagine doing it.

So one evening, I’d messaged my Walton CLP comrade, Ann (Cllr. O’Byrne) for a bit of advice and she roped me into going leafleting in Old Swan for William Shortall, the candidate in the upcoming by-election. I told her my reservations about door knocking and she said I could tag along with her next time she went, which, as fate would have it was about a week later. In fact, in a shocking twist, completely unexpected, I contacted her to see if she was going out on the doorstep and could I join her.

I know, trust me, no one was more surprised than me by my proactive behaviour. But I decided I wanted to get that first go under my belt so I knew what to expect, and once I get an idea into my head, I’m like a dog with a bone.

So we arrived in Old Swan, met up with a team of campaigners and hit the streets. I followed Ann around, listening to her speech and taking in her approach: friendly, helpful, sympathetic. And filed it away for later. Then she made me do one.

Noooooo… the door opened, my mind went blank, I could feel my heart pounding. I can’t even remember who opened the door, it was such a blur. But I did it. I introduced myself, asked if they had any issues they wanted to discuss, asked them if they knew about the by-election…

At the next house there was no answer so I put a card through the letter box. Ann got talking to someone and I found myself agreeing to do a house by myself.

Again, there was no answer. Then I got my first solo door step…

It was sound. I asked if there were any issues, he grinned, “aw man, I’m sure there probably are. Just can’t think of any.”
I mentioned some issues we’d heard from neighbours, and he agreed, “yeah, that sounds good, put that down.” I laughed and asked him about the by-election. “oh yes, we’ll both be voting Labour.”

Success! I felt like I could conquer Everest by this point and went off to get my next house assigned.

Lots of people had told me how much fun it is, how enjoyable it is to chat to people about things, find out what they think about the party, local council, government, plus the camaraderie of the campaigners.

I found myself with one negative response: “will you be voting in the by-election?” I asked. No. I was quite taken aback, “No? How come?”
“Because I’ve never voted Labour in my life.” oh… in my head I pictured Homer Simpson stepping back into a bush to hide… but I held my hands up and said, fair enough.
And then ran away as fast as my little legs would carry me!!

On the whole, it was a fun experience, I’m quite looking forward to doing it again. And while it is still fresh in my mind, I wanted to recall what I learned, because when you’ve done something for a while, it can be hard to remember what it feels like to be doing it for the first time. So here’s what I learned, and I hope it helps any other first time, reluctant door knockers give it a go…

  1. You’re not going alone. There’s a team. Someone will have a clip board with a bunch of names and addresses. They’ll assign you a house number and tell you the name. Don’t worry if you forget the name, you won’t really need it. Think I’d be creeped out if anyone knocked on my door and said “Hello Helen Stephens…” I didn’t hear anyone else use names, maybe they did, but I don’t think it mattered that I didn’t.
  2.  Before I went, I’d been asking people generally whether anyone from Labour had ever knocked on their door and if not, would they want them to? Most said that they would like the opportunity to talk about things and get their thoughts across. So knowing that, starting the conversation by asking if they had any issues they would like me to feed back to their Councillors, felt like I was giving them an opportunity rather than intruding and I felt less self conscious about it.
  3. Say something along the lines of “I’m out in the area with the local Labour party…” It changes your mind set in 2 ways… firstly, it reminds you that you’re part of a team and they’ve got your back and secondly, it takes away the feeling that YOU are knocking on the door because it’s not you, it’s the Labour Party knocking.
  4. More than half the houses I called at didn’t answer. If I got a few in a row, I actually started to get a bit frustrated, and felt a sense of success when I finally got an answer.
  5. A very small number of residents asked not to be disturbed again… but they were still polite and friendly, even though they weren’t particularly happy to see us.
  6. The majority who answered were really happy to chat and seemed pleased to have been given the chance to share their views. Right now, the country is either really interested in politics or really pissed off with politicians. Either way, lots of people seemed to enjoy the excuse to chat about stuff so it’s a really good time to get started.


Caroline Lucas and the All Female Cabinet

Caroline Lucas and the All Female Cabinet

This week Green MP, Caroline Lucas, made a rather unpopular suggestion of creating an all female cabinet of cross party MPs to prevent a no deal Brexit. To say it fell flat is an understatement. I’ve had a couple of discussions on social media about this subject, but social media can get heated so I want to make clear my thoughts on this subject.


On the surface I quite like the idea of an all female discussion because having sat in many board meetings over the last 10 years, I have witnessed first hand, time and time again, that women don’t engage as actively as men. Men are generally very confident in their own beliefs and opinions and have no fear of sharing them with an air of authority. Women tend to listen, take on board the opinions and views of others and understand where their opinion has come from. Often they hold back on sharing their own opinion because it feels unlikely that it will be understood in the same way and there’s a chance they’ll be argued with or patronised in some way. The feeling that if we don’t agree we must be wrong, is enough to keep us quiet. I am not speaking for all women at this point. It is definitely what I feel and I have observed many women in meetings, holding back from sharing their views. On the flip side I’ve been in all women meetings where everyone has felt able to talk, we’ve shared our opinions, even if they differ, we listen and understand each other’s position and we find ways to compromise. So my initial thought when someone told me that Caroline Lucas had suggested bringing together female MPs from all parties to discuss preventing a No Deal Brexit was “What a great idea that is”.


Of course, at that point I hadn’t read the article or the letter that had been sent out and I hadn’t seen the list of women who had been invited. To say it’s not the most diverse group of women would be an understatement and I’m sure in hindsight Caroline Lucas will look back on this as a huge error of judgement. It’s shocking that in putting together a list of women to represent the UK, it doesn’t doesn’t appear to have occurred to her to include BAME women. While in some cases she invited the leader of the party or the only female MP of the party, that explanation doesn’t hold up in the Labour representation. Alongside Emily Thornberry, she could have invited fellow shadow cabinet members; Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler, Valerie Vaz or Shami Chakrabartit, all of whom are much more senior than Yvette Cooper.


Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson has said she won’t enter into a coalition with Jeremy Corbyn. That’s a whole other subject, but I mean, come on, Labour is Labour, the leader is just one person who is answerable to the members. People need to stop getting their knickers in a twist about Jeremy Corbyn and come to terms with the fact that the vast majority of Labour members believe in the policies and direction Corbyn has taken the party. If you want to work with us, that’s what you get. If Jeremy Corbyn steps down, the membership will vote in another leader with the same values and principles because since becoming leader, since unveiling the transformational manifesto, the party membership has more than doubled.

But I’m not convinced that this is just a cynical move to prevent  a general election and a Labour Government. Jo Swinson may not want to work with Jeremy Corbyn but I doubt anyone on the left much wants to work with her either… And while I don’t particularly like the idea of working alongside austerity enablers, they do represent their voters and any proposals to prevent a No Deal Brexit, should take into account all sides of the debate… which incidentally means including socialist MPs which Lucas seemed to have also overlooked.

It took a teenager, Greta Thunberg, to make us sit up and realise that climate change has reached the point of an emergency that we need to do something about. And now we’re 2 months away from leaving the EU with no deal in place and a new unelected Prime Minister who couldn’t care less about it. This feels about as catastrophic as it gets and I welcome any bold ideas to find a way through this mess rather than continuing to repeat the same old dance we’ve witnessed since the Withdrawal Agreement was first presented to the commons.

Obviously, Caroline Lucas doesn’t have any authority to bring together a cabinet to lead on Brexit and any strategies such a group might come up with would have to be voted on. So in that sense, the idea is a bit daft. But I do think that bringing together women from all parties to have a discussion is a good idea – maybe not the specific women that were listed and definitely with better representation of all women – because I do think that given the freedom to speak, debate, listen to each other and understand opposing views, women can change the world.

The Great Hack: AI algorithms and the power of illusion.

The Great Hack: AI algorithms and the power of illusion.

Hands up who watches Derren Brown and thinks “I don’t care what he says, he’s definitely got magical powers’?

I’ve heard so many anecdotes from people leaving his live show, overhearing such comments from attendees.

Why are we so committed to believing the unbelievable despite the evidence?

The thing I admire the most about Derren Brown is that he shows us the trick. All the way along he reminds us that he’s not psychic, it’s just an illusion. In his TV programmes, he explains in detail the tricks he’s using and how they work to manipulate people into believing the unthinkable.

The experiment where he made a young man believe he’d murdered someone was one of the most thought provoking programmes I’ve ever watched and made me question everything about my own emotions and how they’re triggered.

I think Derren Brown is both terrifying and utterly brilliant at the same time. I love watching his shows but I’d absolutely hate to be in the same room as him because I think I’d go insane with paranoia. There was a period of time, after watching the experiments, when I would notice things: words on posters, graffiti, adverts and think “that word again, am I being Derren Browned?” I suppose more than anything Derren Brown alerted me to something very important: we are incredibly gullible and easily manipulated.

This fact has made the marketing industry billions. When radio stations flood the airwaves with the same song, it tops the charts, but who decides which songs get played? Whoever spends the most money.

I recently watched The Great Hack, a documentary about Cambridge Analytica and how it influenced the outcomes of several high profile political events across the world.

With digital and social media, data analysis and artifical intelligence we now have something far more sinister than marketing.

Like cold reading on steroids, algorithms collect and analyse all kinds of data, building up an accurate profile of a person: their character, likes, dislikes etc.

Then social media posts, adverts, and memes are targeted at individuals, subliminally giving them information to influence their opinions.

We’ve all had a conversation about something and then an advert pops up on Facebook about that same thing. We’ve paused outside a shop and looked in the window and then adverts for that shop started appearing in our newsfeeds. And we acknowledge that it’s a bit creepy, or we think it’s a random coincidence, sometimes we even make the link between our data but still, we fill in those pointless personality quizzes, giving faceless tech giants more information to help their algorithms send us content that will influence us to do what they want us to do.

This isn’t just for fun, it’s not light entertainment, it’s not something they do and then reverse the trance so the target stops clucking like a chicken every time someone says “breakfast”.

This goes beyond mainstream media’s biased reporting and companies paying for more advertising than their competitors.This is tech giants selling our data to be analysed. This is people losing their ability to think for themselves. This is the people with the most financial power, rigging elections to ensure they retain their power.

This is an infringement of our democratic rights.

The Great Hack follows a whistleblower who explained how it worked, they exposed the con and showed us how entire nations had been manipulated into voting one way or another, or in one case they created a targeted campaign to convince young people not to vote at all.

There is something fundamentally wrong when people are being discouraged from exercising their democratic right.

Technology continues to evolve at a rate that most of us can’t comprehend and it stands to reason that it takes a while for legislation to catch up. But something has to be done to safeguard our democracy and protect the global population from being exploited.

There has been so many head scratching moments in recent years and I fear we’re on the precipice of an apocalyptic catastrophe. And I can’t shake the feeling that the only way we can stop it is if Derren Brown clicks his fingers and we all wake up.