Tech, health and public spaces – NI has its own digital currency

16 Jun 2021 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 16 Jun 2021

App designer Stephen McPeake, Belfast Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl, and Justice Minister Naomi Long
App designer Stephen McPeake, Belfast Lord Mayor Kate Nicholl, and Justice Minister Naomi Long

A new public scheme is set to pay people to exercise more and use parks and greenways. Civic Dollars is hoping to take on several issues at once. The scheme might just do some good.


People in Northern Ireland are being offered rewards to stroll round parks in order to improve their health.

A new Civic Dollars programme will provide anyone who registers with digital currency for time spent in certain open spaces or doing specified community work.

Anyone can register for this rewards scheme by downloading the Civic Dollars app to their phone. Connswater Community Greenway will be the first open space to go live in the pilot scheme, which will run until the end of this summer.

Lord Mayor Councillor Kate Nicholl said: “Exercising outside and connecting with nature really can help our mental wellbeing. So it’s fantastic that, thanks to this pilot scheme, people can now earn Civic Dollars for the time they spend in our parks and open spaces.

“They can enjoy rewards including Translink DayLink passes and tickets to visitor attractions or support their local community group by donating Civic Dollars to them.”

Currently a number of Belfast-based community groups are eligible for Civic Dollar donations, which they can then exchanging for services including business training, professional advice and activity centre sessions.

The scheme is a soft, positive incentive for people to get out and spend time in open spaces, which should see them exercise more – improving physical and mental health and wellbeing – as well as keep local open spaces in better shape.

That all sounds great. But there are some cynics.


“Should overweight people be paid to exercise, to drive down obesity?”

That is one way to ask a question. Those are the words of Adil Ray OBE, hosting Good Morning Britain on ITV earlier this year, during a segment discussing the potential of Civic Dollars and similar schemes. (Around the same time, the Telegraph wrote a report on Belfast City Council’s plans – describing them as “bribes”.)

GMB brought on Miss Great Britain 2020, Jen Atkin, who is an anti-obesity campaigner.

Ms Atkin told the programme: “There needs to be some motivation behind losing weight and getting active and getting fit. I think this is a great scheme to get them motivated, get them out and get them active.

“We all know that, if you are active and healthy, there is less risk of disease and bad health problems and things like that. Therefore, if you do this scheme and people are healthier, there’s going to be less pressure on the NHS – which has been a godsend to us, we are lucky to have the NHS.”

She also made the point that any parents who get healthier could ultimately lead to better health outcomes for their children.

“Nothing in the past has worked, obesity rates are getting worse… We need to do something now… I wish this scheme had come in before lockdown.”

Ms Atkin is correct about the benefits of physical activity, about the importance of self-led care, and about how this dovetails with modern health and social care systems.

Modern health

Health and social care is only one factor in the quality of public health. In fact, only around 20% of the health indicators NI uses to judge progress on public health relate to clinical provision.

Other factors include poverty, housing, education, environment and more.

In general, the better that every individual take care of themself the healthier they will be. That is not a political or philosophical point, it is simply the way things are (albeit some people will try and twist it into politics, sometimes in destructive ways).

The Bengoa report and, before that, Transforming Your Care saw home as the primary hub for care, and individuals as the people primarily responsible for their own care. This is not a cost-cutting measure (although if we all live healthier, more active lives it would allow the health service to save money or – more likely – free up some resources to be redirected elsewhere). It stems from a desire to reshape public health from nose to tail, to increase wellbeing and to maximise healthy life expectancy.

That is why GPs are increasing prescribing walks in the park and other similar activities in what is known as social prescribing. It’s not just because taking a stroll is cheap – it’s because it’s great for both physical and mental health.

In late 2019, Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride re-announced the Department of Health’s commitment to tackling the prevalence of overweightness and obesity in Northern Ireland.

“This is a long-term challenge which will require long-term action and commitment from service and delivery providers, health professionals, employers, government departments and most importantly, from people themselves.

“I don’t want to tell people what they should or should not be eating. I don’t want to continually lecture about the importance of physical activity. I want people to have choices in the way they live their lives, but I think it is absolutely vital that we inspire people to choose healthier food and be more active, for the sake of their own health and wellbeing.”

The CMO’s words were carefully chosen. It seems like he understands that people don’t respond well to scolding, or shame, or negative messages that emphasise doom over hope.

Which points to one of the strengths of Civic Dollars.

Pilot progress

This pilot scheme is about encouragement. There is no downside for anyone, nothing to lose, it just provides a little nudge to spend more time outside.

This is only a pilot, but it will be great if it shows signs of working. And, unless the development of the app was astonishingly expensive, it is a public initiative with very little on the line. The costs largely come in Civic Dollars, which are only paid out after an individual has walked through Ormeau Park or down Connswater Greenway or wherever they want to go.

Furthermore, a government scheme that makes people healthier and happier sounds like a good government scheme even if it costs money. By reducing pressure on health services, Civic Dollars have the potential to be an investment that saves money for the public purse.

It has also been designed with a further useful service in mind – curation of public spaces.

Justice Minister, Naomi Long said: “Effectively managing public open spaces is a key element in developing a safe community, where we respect the law and each other.

“The Civic Dollars pilot scheme holds the potential to deliver real benefits to local communities by using technology to improve the safe use of our parks and open spaces; something that is so important for both physical and mental health. Congratulations to all involved in this innovative pilot scheme and I look forward to hearing how it has progressed as more people use it in the coming weeks and months.”

The app was developed by Stephen McPeake, CEO of local company Moai Digital Ltd, who previously started ReportAll, an app for reporting concerns like potholes or gorse fires to local councils or other public bodies.

He said: “It’s been fantastic to have this opportunity to apply a tech based solution to Belfast City Council’s challenge of better managing their parks and open spaces. And it’s wonderful to know that local people, businesses and community groups will all benefit as a result when people download and use the Civic Dollars app.

“Life these days is about so much more than just money – it’s about improving our communities, and our own health and wellbeing – Civic Dollars provides the perfect solution with a new social currency. It’s a win win all round!”

The app was developed with support from Belfast City Council and the Department of Justice, with funding through Amazing Spaces, Smart Places - a scheme that seeks to explore “how data and innovative technologies can help us manage our parks and open spaces, ensuring they are safe, accessible and enjoyed by all.”

Civic Dollars aren’t going to save the world, but they could nudge a few different concerns in a positive direction. We should all hope the results from the pilot are good. A low-cost scheme that improves people’s lives in several different ways – even just a little bit - would represent a tremendous success.

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