Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

Why tech businesses are tackling society’s most taboo subject

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Death will happen to us all, but it’s not something we like to talk about or prepare for. The UK population is now older than it has ever been – by 2039, more than one in 12 of the population is projected to be aged 80 or over – and the death rate has risen. There were 602,786 deaths in the UK during 2015, according to the cumulative England and WalesScotland and Northern Ireland figures, up 5.4% from 2014. But some digitally-focused entrepreneurs have spotted an opportunity in the rise, and see this traditional industry as ripe for disruption.

New challenges

Death in the modern age comes with an entirely new set of issues – how to handle our online legacies, such as our tweets, Facebook posts, playlists and other virtual creations. It is a question that has occupied Suelin Chen, founder and CEO of online end-of-life planning service Cake. The platform differs from others as it also provides a concierge facility to handle posthumous profiles online.

“Most people haven’t thought about what they would want to happen to their online accounts after they’ve passed away. We help people understand that there might be precious memories or even actual assets in their Dropbox, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram accounts, etc,” she says.

Chen says the terms and conditions for each site vary and this can be a potential problem for grieving relatives. Also, digital legacy is such a new concept, it is often missed by traditional will makers. “[Wills] are not typically updated enough to manage how often the digital landscape of our lives change. Legacy-building in the digital age is a whole new frontier.”

Dan Garrett, founder and CEO of London-based startup Farewill, is aiming to make it easier for people to update their wills. The business enables people to create a will online for £50 and make updates for just £5 a year. Before launching, Garrett spent time interviewing funeral directors to gain an insight into their work. He discovered that more than half of all people fail to draw up a will and of those who do, most documents are old and unreflective of the owner’s final wishes.

Garrett and all of his team have training in writing wills and the business has created around 2,000 so far. “There are a lot of costs and problems if you die intestate,” he points out. Latest figures estimate the average cost to an estate of dying without a will is £9,700 because of unclaimed assets and poor tax planning.

For some, the financial burden of organising a funeral can also be vast. Insurance company Sun Life found that the average cost of a death in the UK is £8,802 once funeral costs, probate and the send off have been paid for. A 2014 report by the University of Bath estimates that 100,000 people cannot afford to die.

Among the business’ investors are Zoopla and Lovefilm founder, Alex Chesterman, venture capital company Kindred Capital, and Wonga founder, Errol Damelin. Garrett says the nature of his investors is a sign of his own ambition. “Alex Chesterman changed the whole real estate market so I was really excited to bring him on board – we want to do the same with the death industry. The industry is ripe for disruption. I think the fact it hasn’t been is more of a reflection of it being a taboo, than of technical difficulty,” he says.

Increasing transparency

Perhaps because of its taboo nature, the death and funeral industry lacks the transparency of other sectors. Kim Bird is attempting to alter this with her Cardiff-based company About the Funeral, which was founded in 2012. The business received £250,000 from the investment consortium InspireWales, including GoCompare founders Hayley Parsons and Kevin Hughes (Hughes is on her board), and aims to bring price comparison services to the funeral market. “People are unfamiliar with buying a funeral. They either haven’t done it before, or not for a long time.”

Bird, who previously worked in the funeral industry as a bereavement support volunteer, says there are calls from both the public and parliamentarians (including Frank Field MP, chair of the work and pensions select committee) for greater transparency in the industry. She points to research from YouGov suggesting 85% of people want funeral prices published online. “The main challenges have been the nature of the market. It is a traditional industry – changing it is a big challenge,” she says.

It is early days for her company, which has so far signed up 100 funeral directors to its subscription service, but Bird believes now she has the funding and an experienced board, she is well placed to make a difference. “These days, the internet is where most people go for information and About the Funeral is just an extension of that. Many industries have been disrupted in this way – the insurance industry has been through it and now price comparison is the norm for that sector.”

Derrick Grant, who recently launched his funeral director’s network Willow, says he was shocked by the sheer cost of funerals and felt that grieving families were all too often getting a raw deal. “Having watched a friend struggle to pay for his wife’s funeral, I wanted to understand why it was so expensive. After doing research, it became obvious that a lot of the cost is simply because we don’t have the time or access to question the traditional funeral process,” he says.

Grant launched his business in December 2016 with a handful of independent funeral directors connected to his site. Users fill in a simple questionnaire and are directed to the provider who most closely matches their needs. The business makes money through the sale of funeral products such as coffins, flowers and celebrant services. Grant says people often pay large sums for these and it is easy to undercut his competition. He believes he is also making the process easier.

“There are a lot of questions to answer at a time when most people aren’t concerned with paperwork and chasing phone calls,” Grant says. “Booking a cremation can take several phone calls to agree a time and date. Digitising processes so the public and funeral directors are on equal footing and can make decisions faster will make huge differences in the industry. Talking about death is becoming easier, but it’s still difficult to understand what to do when you lose someone.”

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When a dev dies, their apps should live on

When a dev dies, their apps should live on

Most of my working life is spent thinking and writing about technology, gadgets, design and gaming. And while it might sound trite, my favourite part of all this is people.

There’s nothing better when I’m in front of my Mac’s glowing screen than an editor sending a juicy commission that involves me getting in touch with a bunch of talented folks, to find out their views on a particular subject, and then weave them into a feature.

Recently, I was asked by a games mag you’ve probably all heard of to write about Apple TV and gaming, largely from a development standpoint. As ever under such circumstances, I went through my list of email and Twitter contacts, seeing this as a good opportunity to offer some exposure to indie developers whose work I’ve enjoyed over the years. One response came back very quickly, albeit from a name I didn’t quite recognise. The message was in fact from a developer’s wife; the person I was trying to get in touch with had died the previous week.

The developer in question was Stewart Hogarth, who’d lost his battle with congenital heart disease; he was just 34. We’d only been in touch a few times, but I’d been captivated a couple of years ago by his truly excellent 8-bit tribute I Am Level for iOS and Android. This was a smart, charming, entertaining title that married eye-searing Spectrum-style graphics, old-school single-screen platforming challenges, and modern mobile tilt-based controls. It was still installed on all of my devices, and it was strange and very sad to think that the person who created it was no longer with us.

Another developer I was interviewing at the time expressed his shock regarding Stew’s passing, and also concern that his work’s availability was now potentially on borrowed time.

As a developer, he said it was almost like a little of his soul somehow went into each app or game he made; through what you’ve created, you can in some way live on if you’re no longer around. This of course isn’t new thinking — people often say similar things when it comes to art and literature, and even film and music. But those mediums have the kind of longevity that just isn’t afforded to modern digital apps.

Once a developer account lapses through non-payment, the apps are gone forever, which feels wrong.

The notion of dealing with death is something that social networks are slowly getting to grips with. Facebook enables you to make a request to memorialise someone’s account, and helpfully notes what will happen to that person’s page and settings.

Naturally, things remain far from perfect in the social networking space — I’ve heard of automated friend suggestions appearing in people’s timelines from colleagues, friends and love ones who have died. But at least mechanisms are starting to be put in place for protecting the original accounts and precious memories.

For apps and games, things are more complicated. Developer accounts are tied into contractual frameworks. Typically, it’s possible to add extra administrators to your account, but it’s hard to know how many independent developers make such arrangements. After all, who expects they won’t be around tomorrow?

On contacting Apple and Google while writing this article, I discovered there are at least policies in place for a relative taking over an account, which can potentially be achieved by way of full and proper legal checks and identity verifications. Titles someone created can then live on, at least as long as someone pays relevant annual dev fees and bills.

That’s business, but it seems so cold and uncaring. It doesn’t really recognise that those creative endeavours are part of the people who made them.

Perhaps the gatekeepers of mobile content should consider enacting a policy like Facebook’s. It would be rather lovely to think I Am Level could live on regardless, rather than one of the things people think of when remembering Stew just one day disappearing forever.

Stewart Hogarth’s family are raising money in his memory, for the Freeman Heart & Lung Transplant Association. The writer of this article has made a donation.

Who will get your iTunes when you die?

A shift in legacies

The so called GenY has been growing in a different age than their parents. The digital realm has taken over some aspects in everyday life, and that’s something we will have to live with.

We previously  had photo albums, scrapbooks, handwritten journals and letters, pieces of ribbon and shoeboxes to rule them all. If you wanted to get back in time, you just had to open these shoeboxes, carefully hidden in the basement or stored in the closet behind a pile of blankets.

Today, we do have dvd of photos, social media accounts, Facebook statuses and emails ; even the diplomas you are getting from your online courses are PDFs, not pieces of paper framed and proudly displayed behind your desk.  Cyberspace is getting a hold on these precious memories. And that may be an issue in terms of memories and privacy.

Most of our online accounts are locked behind passwords, and without proper guidance, memories may arise once again when you would have liked them to disappear, or those precious memories, photos or videos that you had with a love one may be deleted from cyberspace. That’s why you should take action right now, read more on the howtos, and prepare a list of your legacy, with proper instructions and beneficiaries !