Safeguarding Podcast – Tech for Good with Chris Ashworth of Nominet

In this podcast we discuss Tech for Good with Chris Ashworth of Nominet. We ask why is Nominet, a Domain Name Registrar buried deep within the online digital context infrastructure concerned about the online experience of children and how they will benefit 1,000,000 young people through their public benefit strategy of promoting greater connectivity, inclusivity and security. We also discuss why it’s not a good idea to have myriad apps in the NHS app store.

There’s a lightly edited for legibility transcript of the podcast below for those that can’t use podcasts, or for those that simply prefer to read:

Neil Fairbrother

Welcome to another edition of the SafeToNet Foundation’s safeguarding podcast where we talk about all things to do with safeguarding children in the online digital context.

The online digital context comprises three areas, technology, law and ethics or culture. Child safeguarding is right in the middle of this Venn diagram and encompasses all stakeholders between the child and the content or person online by our interacting with.

Today’s podcast is all about technology and how it can be used for good and our guest works for a tech company that’s embedded deep within the Internet’s infrastructure. Welcome to Chris Ashworth, Head of Public Benefit of Nominet.

Thanks for inviting me up to your splendid office in Oxford. Could you give us a brief resumé of yourself, Chris, your background and who you are, what you do, so that our listeners have got a context?

Chris Ashworth

I am very happy to be the Head of Public Benefit at Nominet, which means that I’m responsible for driving forward all our social impact work, all our philanthropic work and designing programs that have a positive social impact. That involves working on programs that are related to what I’d call classic social issues, but with a digital context. So how has digital affected how we address real world social problems now and what new forms have these social issues taken because of technology and what new opportunities are created because of technology.

So it’s tech for good on the positive, what transformative effect can technology have? And it’s also what you might call “digital exclusion”, or areas such as the digital skills crisis where technology’s having a corrosive effect, let’s say, on existing challenges that we face in society and a lot of that is focused on young people.

I was 10 years at Oxfam, where I headed up corporate partnerships, build a lot of partnerships, particularly with the likes of Nokia and Paypal, so I got a taste for the role of technology and that interrelationship between technology and social issues, particularly as an NGO on the global field if you like. And before that I’ve got a marketing and advertising background and when I got sick of selling Dysons and trampolines for Littlewoods and convincing people to take out 30% APR, I felt my time had come to make a shift in career.

Neil Fairbrother

So Chris, I mentioned that Nominet is buried deep within the Internet infrastructure. Nominet has a particular role that is very important for Internet users, but most people in the UK and probably around the world have no idea of that particular role that Nominet plays. You are a Domain Name Registrar, I think that is the term. What is it, a Domain Name Registrar, what role is it?

Chris Ashworth

Very good question for someone who doesn’t really understand the business as well as other people here! We run the .uk registry, so as a registry solution that means that a member of the public buys or registers anything that ends in .co .uk,, .uk, we’re the organization behind that name. We run the registry if you like for the 13 million domains that then individuals, SMEs or large brands purchase from the likes of Go Daddy and others who then might sell the hosting and the support around that.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. So it’s a bit like an old fashioned telephone directory buy for a domain names, website addresses?

Chris Ashworth

Exactly. Yes. So when someone is directed to a .uk… I think we handle something like 2 billion queries every week around that Internet traffic and manage the database behind that to make sure that all gets directed in the right way. So I always have in my mind my great Auntie Edith, who worked on the telephony systems and plugging in the numbers to redirect people that’s effectively Nominet on a very sophisticated scale.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now it’s interesting that as you are so deeply buried in the internet infrastructure, and you’re not a consumer household name by any stretch, but nonetheless you are concerned about the end user experience, particularly of children when it comes to online technologies. So why is Nominet concerning itself with the end user experience when the end user experiences nothing really to do with Nominet’s business?

Chris Ashworth

Nominet has always had a mandate, and part of its constitution is, to be and have a public benefit position. One of the things I was quite keen to talk to people about when we started to develop the strategy and consult on it was where has “Tech for Good” as a community of practice come from, where does it need to go to and what role can we play in making sure that what we do is credible, authentic and makes an impact?

In terms of the “Why young people?” When we looked at the legacy of some of the work that Nominet was already doing, the nominate Digital Neighbourhood where I worked with the Princess Trust, we had a base to build from. I think that when you’ve got a base to build from and you’ve got some insights about working as a funder in a particular area and then you look at the social issues that we felt were most prevalent at the moment, there seemed to be an affinity towards working and supporting the young people because of where we’ve come from and our expertise and where we felt we could add value.

We’ve developed an approach that might last a minimum of three years where we can have a meaningful measurable impact and look if we’ve changed the system and if we’ve turned the dial in certain areas to make the system healthier for young people and reflect back on that.

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. Now the public benefit strategy that you’ve chosen focuses on initiatives that promote greater connectivity, inclusivity and security. They’re the three key areas I think. So how do you set about doing that?

Chris Ashworth

So I suppose they’re words, they’re a loose framework. When I joined the ambition that we discussed around public benefit was can we set ourselves a performance target of improving the lives of a million people and as we just discussed, we’ve honed that in to say can we improve the lives of a million young people?

Then the organization and the way that it’s working in terms of how it’s diversifying and looking at cybersecurity, TV white space and the Registry Solutions part of the organization, there’s a natural fit to this connected, inclusive and secure principle. But we didn’t start there from the public benefits strategy. We started with the social issues and you’ve got poverty, you’ve got financial insecurity, you’ve got homelessness, you’ve got mental health. What became apparent is that those areas have been disrupted and changed in the last 10 years during this splintering or explosion, if you like, of the impact of technology, particularly of social media and other forms of communication and almost you could argue that new social issues have emerged.

So a perfect example of that is internet safety. Internet safety as a domain, as a field of practice, as a social issue didn’t exist 20 years ago, so it’s no wonder in some ways that the education system or the social system around this nascent emerging topic hasn’t matured to the same degree as literacy. And then you’ve got the weaving in of other social issues, so if you take social exclusion, that’s something that people understand, there’s a field of practice, there’s academic literature, there is policy.

When you think about digital exclusion and look at how that has interplayed with social exclusion, whether the two equate to the same thing, whether digital exclusion drives social exclusion, whether social execution drives digital exclusion, [this] isn’t being addressed by much of the established social institutions and infrastructure, but somebody needs to at least start the process. And there are organizations already doing these things, we’ve not completely invented something new, but that drives the choices around where we wanted to focus the strategy on addressing the new, the emerging.

Neil Fairbrother

So we talked about digital exclusion and we also talked about networks and there seems to me to be an inbuilt digital exclusion, an inbuilt and inherent unfairness in the technology choices that have been used by telecoms companies to roll out broadband. Despite what the marketing says, most broadband in the UK is not fibre optic, it’s delivered over a copper wire and it’s using a signalling system that makes use of alternating current.

So you’re running alternating current over a copper wire and you will, schoolboy physics tells you, get impedance, which means that the signal degrades over distance and that will impact the speed and the user experience of Internet access for someone. We’ve got a real postcode lottery for broadband. So how can that be addressed? Because connectivity is one of the things that you want to champion and make fairer, but you can’t make it fairer if the infrastructure itself is fundamentally unfair.

Chris Ashworth

I’ve had a few conversations about what do we mean by “connected”, and what do I mean by “connected” in terms of public benefit and what does a technology organization mean by “connected”? What I would say is that “connected” can mean a very different thing in the vernacular that you use in a tech company compared to the social sector and I’m firmly placed in the social sector and making change happen there.

There’s a difference between [being] fundamentally completely and utterly excluded because they can’t afford the hardware or the connectivity, and [when] they aren’t surrounded by the support that they might need, compared to having a good or bad connection. And I think there’s a bigger issue than whether the tech companies have priced people out or offered poor service, or not made it ubiquitous and access for all as a human right.

We know that shifting services online and digitally has great costs savings for the Government, whether that’s prescription services, whether that’s GP bookings, whether that’s access to other essential services and universal credit, the benefits of moving those services to a digital footprint are significant. The secondary irony of that is that then you need to spend a long time convincing the people who would benefit the most to access those services and no matter how well Government digital services have focused on user-centred design, which they have done brilliantly, I think there’s the envy of the world in many, many respects, they’re only user-centred to a degree if your users wish and want those services to be delivered online.

So for a lot of people, that kind of “I Daniel Blake” is like the bellwether to this issue.

Neil Fairbrother

This is the documentary that was on I think BBC?

Chris Ashworth

Yeah. It was at the cinema as well. And it’s a seminal moment saying the irony of you can’t get a job unless CV, your application is done online, but you don’t have access to get online.

Neil Fairbrother

So a modern day “Catch 22?”

Chris Ashworth

Absolutely. And I talked a little while ago about the concept of telling people to eat the greens. We know it’s good for people to improve that digital skills to be included in a “digital by default” society, but we’re telling them they should because it’s good for them and we’ve had to do it in almost a patronizing way. If someone wants to abstain and someone wants to reject society moving in that direction, they’re excluded because of that. If someone wants to stay at a standstill, they can’t and whatever anyone feels about that, the rights or wrongs, people have agency and a right to say, “I don’t want to do it, I don’t want to engage or transact in that way. Why are you forcing me to do that?”

And I can understand why people have that attitude and then feel isolated because of where society has moved on because it moved on at such a terrifying pace for people who maybe life hasn’t moved as quickly as that in many respects.

Neil Fairbrother

So looking at mental health, which is one of the areas that you are concerned about, you say that young people aged 16 to 24 are less likely to receive adequate mental health treatment and preventative support than any other group in the UK despite a considerable increase in the number of people requesting help. So what’s causing that increase and why are they not getting the help that they need?

Chris Ashworth

One of the first things I suppose to kind of caveat what we say in the report is it’s the reported number of people, young people, reporting that they have a mental health and wellbeing issue. We don’t have a counterfactual saying that 10 years ago there was a lower mental health crisis, a public health crisis amongst young people and suddenly there’s been an explosion because we don’t know what the reported rates are.

But what we’re seeing is either by a consequence of society making it better or easier for people to raise their hands and say, I need some help, I’d like some help, I’d like to explore some help, is that the services that surround young people and adults as well have seen a massive increase in demand. We have a very strong partnership with the Samaritans and the demand for their listening services for people who are in emotional crisis has gone up significantly in the last five years.

Neil Fairbrother

This is the Digital Transformation partnership?

Chris Ashworth

Yes, and one of the things that we’ve been trying to explore is, alongside that increase that significant and steep increase in people requesting support, over the last ten years you’ve seen then a splintering of the pathways that young people want to access that support from. So you’ve seen a change in behaviour.

Ten years ago, the organizations that were involved in mental health listening services, whether that’s personal crisis or other types of support for people suffering, anxiety and depression, or struggling with self-harm or harassment and bullying causing them to become isolated, an expert organization only had to be an expert in providing support that had clinical evidence that it works.

In the last five years, those very same organizations have not only had to continue being an expert in that, but they’ve now had to try and become experts in digital services, because of that fragmentation. That splintering and fragmentation that’s happened because of digital and the adoption of mobile phones and the move towards chat rooms, chat bot services, to digital self-help tools, has created a real challenge for most if not all of the mental health frontline service providers and they’ve fallen behind.

Neil Fairbrother

The NHS has developed an apps library. Young people as we all know they all use cell phones, smart phones. They love apps and there is an app library, there are some mental health apps in there, around 20 or so that have been developed by third parties which support patients with wellbeing, CBT and peer support networks. These apps have been developed to meet the standards designed by the NHS digital teams around areas like clinical safety, usability and security.

But the number of apps is tiny, but the problem is seems huge. Given that young people spend so much time online, and apps and smartphones seem to be the preferred medium for them, then what else could be done to improve access to the existing apps and indeed provide more and perhaps better apps?

Chris Ashworth

I think that’s an interesting point, and this is part of our journey, we’re exploring this and in the next couple of months we’re trying to have a significant impact in this area as part of a program of funding and a program where we’re just finalizing the design and I’m really, really excited about it.

A couple of the things I’d say on that is the NHS does have an apps library. If you are a young person right now experiencing a personal crisis, do you know it exists? Just because something is built doesn’t mean that it then becomes associated with. I always use the example when we talk about social issues of “Compare the Market” and “Go Compare”, and how they became ubiquitous in terms of people’s knowledge and understanding of where to go if you want insurance, because someone will sing the tune at you or someone will talk about that cute meercat.

They probably spend upwards of 75 million pounds a year on advertising to become ingrained become the sticky association with a service that is used ubiquitously across the UK. The NHS Apps library can be and could be in the future, the number one go to resource for young people, or for anyone, who needs to understand the best services that are out there for them. But at the moment, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.

And then the audiences for the NHS Apps library are GPs and social workers and youth workers themselves. So unless that knowledge is there, then the Apps library can be as brilliant as we could make it, but still not necessarily the right pathway because people aren’t aware of it.

I’d then say I would slightly disagree with the notion that it should be bigger necessarily. There might be an optimum number, but we were visited I think you remember by Victoria Hornby from Mental Health Innovations at the panel event we ran in London a little while ago and one of the phrases that really, really stuck with me was the “paradox of choice” statement.

When you’re using the Internet to search for a washing machine, it’s the best thing since sliced bread because you can look at the thousands and thousands of different options. You can rate and rank all the different retailers and all the different models and all the different manufacturers and you can look at the delivery slots and you can find the model that’s perfect for you. And then you can probably find it £20 cheaper off somebody else. And then you can visit “Hot UK deals” and find a voucher code and get another 15% off and you can do all these things, and it’s great!

When you’re in a personal crisis and you need to understand what’s the right support for me right now, the last thing that is helpful is unlimited choice and no sense of what is “good” in terms of quality of design, but also in terms of what’s good for me right now. So we talk a lot about how can we sign post people to it? And I think that’s also a little bit dangerous.

What we need to be talking about is what is the right pathway for a young person when they’re in a period of crisis and they might not be able to get in from the GP, they might have struggled to talk to the right person, but what’s the right way to get them to a place in a few months’ time maybe, where they’re in a better place. What’s the right journey between the offline services that might be necessary and the online services that might provide perfectly brilliant support at the right point in time.

So we need to be thinking about the pathway and the journey. The NHS Apps library has really critical role to play in that, in terms of what it’s advocating as good solid services. But then just having it there on a webpage, as a signposting tool is not enough.

Neil Fairbrother

Does it have to have all of those digital marketing skills that the “Go Compares” of the world use? Do they need to spend tens of million pounds also promoting?

Chris Ashworth

Yes, definitely, definitely tell the NHS to spend tens of millions of pounds! Yeah. Why not?

Neil Fairbrother

I mean, it’s not going to happen is it because…

Chris Ashworth

There are some smart things you can do. I think that there’s been some research I’ve read the that says, GPs aren’t particularly, it’s a broad brush statement, but are GPs particularly supportive in terms of their understanding and appreciation of the online tools and what they can do like CBT, or the more general public health end of managing your mental health positively before it becomes a problem, of how digital services can plug the gap between face-to-face counselling.

All this range of pathways and journeys that we can explore, and then how can GPs themselves, when they’re making these recommendations, know of the tools that are out there which tools come with the most clinical evidence and which ones we back into the NHS most appropriately.

So we’ve got a situation where the system doesn’t work, from a pathways perspective right now very well at all. It’ll take a bit of effort to make the system healthier and better and I hope that in two years’ time we can start saying, do you know what? No system is perfect and the mental health support that we give young people isn’t failing completely like it was two years ago. It’s on the right path and there’s still work to do, but I think that has a lot of component parts to it.

One of those for us and where our expertise is, is supporting the organizations who have a national footprint, who really understand and have the closest trusted relationships in the communities, which can mean over the phone, to be given support and a boost to adapt their digital services to get them into the same place that their other services were at and try and reset the system a little bit around those sorts of areas.

Neil Fairbrother

There is an interesting comment that you made in one of your reports that children need a consistent and confident community of support around them if they are to thrive and make the most of the opportunities offered by the online engagement.

So there is interesting relationship between the online and the offline here because we’ve been talking about online services, perhaps using apps for mental health support and help and assistance. But here you’re saying that there’s a direct relationship between the relationships within the offline community and the online experience. And that dovetails quite nicely into Carlene Fermin’s contextual safeguarding work where she’s talking about the dynamic community that surround the child as the child moves through various spaces during the day. So the family, the journey to school, the school environment, the shopping mall experience, the after school club experience. And so should we be focusing more on building this community of support in the real world around children rather than worrying too much about online issues?

Chris Ashworth

Absolutely. Absolutely. So we took a long look at systems practice, which was something becoming more popular in the field of social science, but delivered really well by the Omidyar Group and we were looking at social isolation. It was on the back of running a program called Digital Reach within the Nominet Trust, which was looking at digital exclusion and why and how that might be delivered by people who have the most trusted relationships with young people.

And then if you take the recent report we’ve done on Keeping Children Safe Online, one of the findings or points we make in that is that a child’s online vulnerability is far greater if that young person experiences offline vulnerability first. And then you look at when points of vulnerability really arise and they come through points of transition, so that might be changing care home if you or family have experienced domestic abuse, it might be moving home frequently into non-permanent addresses, if you are transitioning between the care system and then the world of work, or even if you’re experiencing less disadvantage but you’re changing school or moving from primary school to senior school, all these points of transition accentuate a young person’s vulnerability.

And that’s not just a young person feeling a little bit more nervous about something. This is research pointing to areas of disadvantage and vulnerability. The online and the offline worlds – we almost need to extract the language from there and leave it to one side and talk about what is the system of support around that young person and how does it work in the most optimum, efficient manner and how do we ensure that a young person has access to relationships and support they can trust?

Neil Fairbrother

And how do we do that?

Chris Ashworth

So you have to first of all, stop the binary digital and offline element. One of the reports that we looked at recently when working with the Scouts was with the Unthinkable Agency. Matthew and Justin over at Unthinkable and we were chuckling really because we use the word digital in everything and young people don’t.

So I now know I sound like an old guy when I’m using the word digital and never put it in the name of a program if it’s about supporting young people. But the real world experience of a young person doesn’t distinguish between an offline and online world and therefore nor should the services around those people. So if you’re talking about mental health and wellbeing support, it’s having a user centred view around that young person, what is the experience they need to have and how are those services going to be delivered to that person on a journey to getting them better?

So is that a mixture of face to face counselling and um, CBT support in between the sessions? How can the appointment system work with their experience of using that system and that face-to-face support? What if that young person needs support and medication alongside those things? How do the two systems speak? So I suppose one of the questions is how can interoperability work between the online and offline world to make a beautiful seamless system and give the person access to a trusted relationship or trusted relationships throughout?

Neil Fairbrother

Okay. So in one of your reports you say that today’s youth are well aware of the Internet’s limitations and they have a realistic view of the issues that it has created. Chief among these concerns are cyberbullying, fake news and cybersecurity and those three things, the cyberbullying, fake news and cybersecurity can all impact on the perception of self, on the self-confidence of an individual and that can impinge on their mental wellbeing as well. It can have a devastating effect, some of this stuff. So how can this be addressed? Because although you said we need to separate out the online from the offline and stop using those terms, we can’t stop people from using the online.

Chris Ashworth

So you know right at the start of the podcast we were talking about classic social issues and how they might have matured in terms of the responses that we have towards them. Over time they mature, the academic literature increases, the body of evidence increases, the longitudinal studies increase. I think we can learn a lot from there.

I’ve always been really interested in the transferability of principle concepts from those fields into these new emerging social issues, or these blended social issues, so that we don’t have to start afresh. Now I’m no expert in this, one of the problems I face, I often feel like I have to be a “deep generalist” I’m touching so many social issues, and I’m a jack of all trades, master of none. And there are people like Ellen Helsper at LSE and others who’ve done a lot of work in this area.

But if you take the field of resilience and where you are trying to help a young person be better supported, or improve their life chances, or ride with the shocks that might come their way on all these points of transition we talked about before. Resilience is an area that has been talked about a lot and studied a lot, emotional and psychological resilience to shocks.

So we need to explore how that can be transferred in a digital context, much like Ellen Helsper talks about disposition, so someone’s disposition toward something. Is it strong or weak? And she’s written quite lot on digital disposition. As you know, what often happens on a lot of the internet safety support sites is how can we make a young person safe on Facebook? And then people have matured from those to how can we make people generally safer online?

And I think the level below that is how can we improve young people’s resilience and disposition in that ever-changing environment, just like the offline world changes. People I think get fixated on let’s say Tick Tock. Tick Tock has exploded in terms of its usage, or Snapchat or some of the others that we talked about in the report, if we’d have built support around those platforms, they were already dead and disappeared off the face of the Internet.

We don’t say to young people, we’re going to make you resilient and stronger when we take you to the shopping mall, or we’re going to make you resilient and stronger and give you lessons in how to stay safe on the park. Different environments. We don’t specify that you need to be better in those places and spaces. We just accept that they’re going to mix with all sorts of aspects of society.

There’ll be some places where those risks are greater. In a car, please put your seat belt on. Well, they’ll know now that if they get on a bus or a coach in particular they might put their seatbelt on because that’s what they did in the car. So that interoperability of resilience and knowledge and nouce… the more vulnerable you are an isolated you are offline, the more potential for harm you have when you go online.

But we can almost start to remove some of these false barriers about online resilience and build a young person’s capacity to be resilient in all forms of their life that surrounds them and decouple some of the things that we’re working towards at the moment. That comes through education, and most young people in the UK are lucky to have a support network around them, but for a lot of young people, that biggest chance of staying disadvantaged is when they’re socially isolated, when they don’t have access to quality relationships, where they can be coached or have a mentor or someone in their life who they feel is an inspiration or it gives them a good guidance.

That’s the biggest thing for me. If every young person had a strong, positive, discrete number of people surrounding them, who they could trust, who they could trust for support and go to for guidance or networks, then we’d be a much stronger society.

Neil Fairbrother

That’s a brilliant note to end this on. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been fascinating. Thank you.

Chris Ashworth

Thanks a lot. Really enjoyed it. Thank you.


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