Keeeep Smiling!

Friday, 22nd May, 2020
Alison Jones and Peter Baikie bring smiles and songs to Care Home residents

How a Progressive Web App helps The Smiling Sessions to bring kindness into Care Homes

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I was humbled when I thought of my sister, a NHS doctor, putting herself in harm’s way, being a real hero. Surely there was something useful I could do with my technical skillset?

Stuck in my COVID-19 induced isolation, I had feelings of helplessness. The initiatives in health tech seemed remote and unlikely to work, and at any rate were the reserve of officials and far-off institutions. All the solutions seemed very high-tech and far off.

Thankfully, kindness is something that we can always give in our own way. My friend Alison Jones leads a weekly charity sing-along called the “Smiling Sessions”, where her band of musicians perform live to care home residents. Her personal approach to helping others, bringing cheer and lifting spirits, was proving to be popular with audiences before the outbreak. Now that care homes are in crisis, she’s brought her initiative on-line to create remote sing-alongs, where the care home managers show the performances on Web TVs and mobile devices.

Alison has shown that even that simple act of kindness, singing, was enough to be a lasting help. There is compelling science to back up this claim too, that singing even for an hour can boost immunity, having a double benefit during the pandemic.

So I was inspired to help, if not to don a wig and sing Elvis covers, but to lend a hand in helping to bring the Smiling Sessions to a wider audience on-line. I don’t know if Kindness is more infectious than Coronavirus; but doing something you enjoy doing whilst helping others (or helping others to help others) has been a welcome reprieve from the otherwise gloomy outlook.

The main drawback with the group’s current distribution, via on-line streaming platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo, is that they require the view to be on-line whilst watching. In many care homes, the connectivity isn’t good enough or stable enough for this, and sometimes isn’t there at all. Alison needed a way for her content to be viewable offline, so care home managers could take the downloaded videos with them on portable devices.

So I worked on building a Progressive Web Application (PWA) that would function as the Smiling Sessions webpage, but would function like a mobile application. The PWA approach allows for the Smiling Sessions page to be installed on mobile devices, just like any other app, making it easier to find for end users later. Crucially, it also provides for caching video content on the device, so users have the option to either stream live or save the video for later. In this way, managers can download the content where their connectivity is good, and then take the app with them with no loss of experience.

I used the GatsbyJS framework, with its PWA support, to rapidly prototype a solution in a few days, that works on all mobile devices. Storing the video content in Cloudinary gives us the video hosting capability, and the flexibility to serve different sizes and video formats for the widest possible audience. The workbox tools from Google made light work of creating offline web experiences, wrapping the underling ServiceWorker API and creating great docs that explain common recipes to get going quickly.

The project, which I nicknamed ‘Smile Player’, is available online as an open-source project for anyone to contribute to. We’re currently actively looking for volunteers to help to develop the app, especially front-end developers, designers or copywriters to spruce up the experience. If you can help, get in touch and help spread the kindness!

Oh, and don't forget to enjoy some of the incredible music and performances from renowned musicians on the Smiling Sessions!