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Full Title

Net Neighbours


Structure, dependability, socio-technical systems, age concern, internet shopping, shopping by proxy
Locations: York and Newcastle


Net Neighbours is a scheme designed to assist clients of Age Concern, York (ACY) to carry out grocery shopping via the internet, albeit indirectly. Although there has been much talk about so-called silver surfers–older people who regularly use internet services–there is still a proportion of older people who do not have access to the internet and the services that it can provide. Net Neighbours addresses this issue by using trained volunteers to perform the online part of the internet grocery shopping on behalf of the clients.

Compared to the more usual do–it-yourself approach to internet shopping, the Net Neighbours’ shopping by proxy approach increases the number of stakeholders and communication channels involved. The volunteer phones their client to obtain their shopping list and arrange a delivery time, and simultaneously checks on the client’s general well-being. The volunteer then orders the groceries via the supermarket’s website, selects the appropriate delivery slot and pays for the groceries using their own credit card. The volunteer phones the client to confirm that the order has been placed, before phoning ACY to confirm the details of the shopping along with the estimated cost (for reimbursement). If the client has any personal problems, the volunteer will also report these to ACY. The supermarket delivers the goods directly to the client at the selected time. ACY phones the client to check that the delivered order was satisfactory. The client is also asked for the actual cost of the shopping (so that the volunteer can be reimbursed) and reminded to send the payment to ACY.

The factors contributing to the dependability of Net Neighbours are shown in the following table:

• Client
     o Grocery order gets delivered on time, and is correct.
     o Volunteer rings at arranged time to take order.
     o Social contact with volunteer.
• Volunteer
     o Client is at home at pre-arranged time of contact.
     o Supermarket web-site is working.
     o Credit card details are not compromised.
     o Volunteer gets paid promptly by ACY.
• Agency (ACY)
     o Client gets required groceries delivered in a timely manner.
     o Client pays for groceries in a timely manner.
     o Client has social contact with volunteer.
     o Client has social contact with supermarket delivery driver.
     o Volunteer does not defraud client.
     o Volunteer gets reimbursed in a timely manner.

The extra stakeholders add to the complexity of the structure of the scheme and issues of trust are raised by the extra associated dependencies. ACY, however, already have in place facilities to assure the trust in several components of the service, such as carrying out background checks on volunteers, and taking up references. The Net Neighbours scheme has the beneficial side effect that it provides a way of mitigating problems of social isolation that can occur among older people. The volunteers are encouraged (and expected) to develop a social relationship with the clients, albeit usually restricted to telephone conversations. What is somewhat ironic is that in the Net Neighbours scheme, much of the structure is provided by people, rather than technology. This does raise other issues, however, which means that the key to dependability lies in the way that the overall service is administered.



"Age Concern York"

"The Net Neighbours site."



Blythe, M., Monk, A.F. and Doughty, K. (in press) Socially Dependable Design: The Challenge of Ageing Populations for HCI, Interacting with Computers, accepted subject to revision.

Blythe, M. and Monk, A.F. (2005) Net Neighbours: adapting HCI methods to cross the digital divide. Interacting with Computers, 17, 35-56.


Andrew Monk, A dot Monk at psych dot york dot ac dot uk


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