Networked love


Vickie Cammack

Joan is a Canadian woman with a history of mental health problems. When she developed necrotising fasciitis and had to go into hospital, the people who cared about her joined an online social network so they could keep in touch with one another. That network was Tyze, which differs from more familiar sites like Facebook in that it has a specific purpose, with each network being based around a particular individual.

Tyze is a new venture from Canadian social entrepreneur Vickie Cammack, who defines it as an ‘intentional network’. Cammack previously set up PLAN, a 20 year-old organisation supporting people with disabled children who have, she says, an abiding worry:  ‘What’s going to happen when I die?’ This is invariably a two-pronged anxiety, covering both financial security and social survival: who will be there for their son or daughter? PLAN helps parents put in place both financial provision and a network of supporters and helpers. As a result of PLAN’s lobbying, Canada is the first country to introduce a tax-free savings plan for the parents of disabled children, to which the government may also contribute up to 300%, depending on the family’s income.

Tyze develops PLAN’s theme of creating a network of friends, helpers and supporters. When Joan was admitted to hospital, her sisters set up a page on the site on which they could post information about visiting times, what newspaper she wanted brought in, the latest on her surgery and her spirits. Her friends and neighbours and anyone else who cared about her were able to look at this and add their own suggestions and observations. There was also a calendar and a stories page on which they could post memories and photos, which helped to cheer Joan up when she was recovering. For her birthday, they used the site to organize a party in the hospital.

Joan’s condition improved, but she lacked the strength to transfer herself from her hospital bed to a chair, which is the criterion in Canada for being able to return home. She seemed destined to go into long-term care, but her Tyze network organized themselves to come in to hospital and encourage her to do her physiotherapy until she reached the point where she was able to return home – which was very much what she wanted, and which also, incidentally, saved the care system a substantial amount of money.

The advantage of Tyze is that it can forge links between formal and informal carers, making sure that everybody is up to date. It has particular benefits for people whose networks are far-flung; so John’s son, who lives in Canada, is in constant touch on Tyze with John’s daughter, who lives in Singapore, with John himself, in Scotland, and with John’s osteopath and neighbours.

The purpose of Tyze is to ‘strengthen relationships, not to count them,’ according to Cammack; each network is secure and closed. There is no advertising and no data mining. The person at the centre of a Tyze network is described as ‘facing life challenges’ and can be any age; at present 30% are 56 or older. But this seems to be something with real appeal for people who are caring for an elderly relative, especially if they don’t live nearby. The benefits of having connections as you age have been well researched; in particular, a 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 10 times less likely to die in the study period than those with fewer  friends.

‘Tyze aims to put citizens and their networks at the centre of the care equation,’ Cammack says. Each site has an animator, who identifies potential members, sends invitation and keeps up the momentum. Someone on Joan’s site posted about how inspiring her recovery had been; the network validates the person at its centre, emphasizes her importance and the contribution she makes, in Cammack’s words, ‘simply by being’.

I heard Vickie Cammack speak at the SIX Conference in Paris last week. Like the best social entrepreneurs, she’s a great storyteller, carrying you along with her verve and belief. Back in London, trying to be dispassionate, I am still persuaded that Tyze is an idea ready to take off. My in-laws, who died within a few weeks of each other last year, received both formal and informal care in the last months of their lives. They lived in the Yorkshire dales; we live in London. We often felt out of touch. It wasn’t that people didn’t want to collaborate, but we had no easy way to do it. The individuals involved in popping in to see them, or the district nurse, had no easy way of updating each other and the family. If everyone had been sharing their activities and information, they not only would have been more effective, they would have been reassured that they were doing something purposeful with other people. I am sure we all would have felt better.