Technology, Social Media and Social Services – Finding new ways to ‘help’


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I have some across lots of discussions and debates about ways of using social media and new technologies and interactions to ‘help’ social services become more effective. Most of it seems to revolve around building online directories and databases of micro providers and services that are available which build on so-called community capacity to improve the way that personal budgets can or might work.

At the risk of sounding overly cynical there is nothing ‘innovative’ in my mind about building a directory of services.  To me, this is not a particularly innovative way to use ‘technology’ in social services.  It taking a very obvious and well-trodden route to using new technologies. Providing directories while being useful to a certain group of people again exacerbates the isolation of those who are not party to or able to use them.  Being innovative isn’t always necessary to be helpful but it is very important that new ideas are focussed so we don’t just end up with increasingly specialised, localised directories that might have more ‘interactive’ features and feedback, look more ‘user led’ and compatible with the buzz words of social media but in the end they are brushing the surface of possibilities.

It feels more and more as if that there is a growing division between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ as far as personal budgets have been extended and does absolutely nothing to address or use technologies to address those who reside continually in the ‘have not’ section.

While at work, we labour with database systems that have clearly been developed through conversations between commissioners and software companies without any recourse to frontline practitioners, nice new provider directories are being tinkered around with while the fundamental foundations of the systems we work with remain resolutely inaccessible.

I’ve had a few ideas myself and whilst I lack the technological expertise to see any of these ideas to fruition, this is a kind of ‘wish list’ of the sorts of things I’d like to see.  I’m under no illusion that these are ‘new’ ideas. I am sure similar things already exist in some form but they are things I’d like to see pan out in the longer run. Things I’d like to use at work.

I’d like to see more creativity in the use of technologies to assist with decision making for adults who have some kind of cognitive deficit. I’m a great fan of the ‘tablet’ and ‘touch screen’ model as I think it is intuitively an easier interface to understand.  When I see people instinctively reach out to touch the screen of my Kindle (which isn’t touchscreen!) I realise that we are becoming conditioned to seek the easiest input methods which are about touching a screen and speaking into a microphone and perhaps writing on a tablet. Now, voice recognition has improved, I’m yet to come across very successful handwriting recognition (possibly because I have scrawly almost illegible handwriting) but there is potential there. In the meantime, pictures and touchscreens seem like a good way to go.

Using pictures/sounds/music it can draw on multi-media ‘shows’ and explanations of different options – moving beyond the ‘written word’. Providing documentation in aural form or in pictorial/moving form rather than reams of leaflets. Having recordings of familiar voices or pictures of familiar faces might help to reassure. I’m a great fan of telecare in general with the proviso of always being mindful that the human contact is not replaced but in days where human contact is sparsely provisioned anyway, it may be something that can be experimented with.

Why not a YouTube type video to explain how services can be chosen instead of reams of ‘easy read’ leaflets which really aren’t remotely ‘easy read’. Instead of flooding people with lists of providers (which, while good for some ignores those who are restricted in terms of capacity and carers to choose ‘freely’ the types of services they garner) why not explain and expound in different ways the ways that services can work?

Why not explain providers in terms of what they can actually provide and what purpose they serve rather than creating directories that are meant for people with a good understanding of what they want and need?

I was in a day centre last week and there was a seemingly unused Wii. I wonder if he Kinect might be a better project to develop some type of interactive play, exercise and work as it doesn’t need a controller at all and uses the more innovative way of body movement.  Using participatory games with larger screens in company can provide different stimuli. I know why games developers  haven’t tackled directly the ‘older’ market with games that might otherwise reside in memories but why not repackage old school yard games and board games with Kinects and iPads? It may be a good way to introduce the use of these new technologies in a ‘friendly’ manner which may then see them used in other wider ways – such as directories or personalised information sources. Using YouTube video channels for personally designed ‘reminiscence’ therapies could personalise the delivery of memories and digitise memory boxes where items are not there to build up the frames of someone’s life and people aren’t there to fill in the gaps.

There are many ‘dating site’ type services that match people and organisations. Volunteers to voluntary groups etc. How about a type of match between schools and residential homes? I know it’s something that’s sometimes done locally where I work and having spoken to both providers and some of the kids who go in, they seem to enjoy it and it can change and break expectations – each of the other.  I

We talk of social media a lot and often it is used to provide ‘recommendations’ to particular services through these databases. Perhaps more user and carer led general recommendations can be collated. Crowd source an ‘introduction’ to social services provisions by those currently using the service.

Ask ‘what do you wish you’d known?’ ‘what do you wish someone had told you?’ and while taking out all the obviously libellous stuff, a local authority must be brave enough to leave in the criticisms. We learn through complains and criticisms and it can take a lot of guts (or anger) to make a complaint or to criticism and that MUST be respected by the service and the individuals at fault and used as a means of improvement.

I don’t want to see local authorities ‘whitewash’ problems in order to gain sparkling OFSTED or CQC inspections. It sullies the whole process and makes the inspections worthless. Regulation should be less authoritarian and more about actually making improvements and making things better for the end user – not about allowing local authorities to produce the ‘right’ results while poor practice is brushed away from the sight of the inspectors.

But back to my point about using social media to crowdsource – it is important that social media ALONE is not used as an ‘answer’. Crowd sourcing must be honest but it must also be broader than putting out an ‘internet consultation’ and having a Twitter account or blog. There must be pounding of the streets too to engage those who are not able to use digital means to put their points across. There should be knocking at doors and face to face discussions – not leaflets, not inaccessible (for some) groups.

Talking about crowdsourcing though, there’s a much better and perhaps more obvious way it can be used and certainly isn’t being used at the moment and that’s to engage other social workers and professionals into putting together more information and useful methods of practice for ourselves. Sure, it needs time but we remain reliant on organisations to provide ‘guidance’ such as SCIE (who do provide fantastic resources) and BASW and the College of Social Work but why none of these organisations who purport to exist to help social work and social care practice actually engage more directly and use social media and open access blogs/discussion groups/forums/micro blogging etc to engage with currently practicing social workers is completely beyond me.

I’ve become very interested in open access education and resources and feel there is great scope for professional engagement and information to build its own resources and information together with users and carers, together with other professionals but there has to be a push for social workers to see the benefit of sharing and finding appropriate ways to share the information that we learn every day.

I have other ideas which will come in different posts  but I’d be interested in hearing other peoples’ ideas for uses of ‘technology’ in the very broadest sense and how they can develop to help the broadest range of people we see in social services – particularly those who are less able to look information up in various fancy online directories.

10 thoughts on “Technology, Social Media and Social Services – Finding new ways to ‘help’

  1. I think there are broadly two kinds of technolgical uses in Social Work today. One could be described as Big brother technology and the other Guardian Angel. BB technology is more used for restricitive purposes and utilises surveillant techniques to watch / monitor those we consider “risky.” While Guerdian Angel tends to be softer and focuses more on empowering and faces client groups that might be seen as “more sinned against than sinning”
    Whatever uses there are technol;ogy provides a more cost effective way and as you point out perhaps a more direct way of engaging and involving service users. The risk of course is that we see technology as having primacy over traditional and more effective ways of intervening with service users. Technology can create a perverse “dumbing down” of service.
    Personally I think there needs to be a greater examnation of the ethical issues associatted with technology before we go inserting it into every area of social work practice and I think this post is definately promoting that debate.
    I agre with your comments about inspection. I think some local authorities (I am in Scotland) are very good at being inspected wether or not they are as good at delivering the services is another matter. The whole area of inspection and registration is for another debate.
    I do believe that there is a use for online dorectories. While some people may be on the wrong side of the digitial divide and there is a risk that it could increase polarisation I do not think that that in itself should be enough reason not to do it. I think the application of sound principles of social enterprise could assisst this. Access is an issue but progress needs to move at it’s own pace. I think one of the issues that needs further examination is the role of personalisation, particularly in relation to how it affects collective approaches. Perhaps social media and technology have a role to play in counteracting isolation and polarisation that could be a result of personalisation?

  2. Hi David
    Thanks for that. I like the idea of separating the ‘big brother’ from the ‘guardian angel’ type technologies. I may well come back to that idea if you don’t mind. Interestingly or perhaps not, we’ve definitely seen an increase in families using ‘spying’ type technologies on carers.
    I didn’t mean to denigrate all directories as I know they can be enormously helpful – I just don’t regard them as innovative and it can be a lazy type of innovation to just create new ways of presenting information rather than looking at new ways of doing things.
    I don’t believe technology is the only answer and human services very much need humans but I think the profession has been slow to pick up on the possibilities of technologies.

  3. I want a electronic community directory that will automatically update itself whenever a government program/agency/source of funding decides to change its phone number/address/website address/criteria/ adherence to criteria/services provided/ceases to exists/starts to exist/combines with another government program-agency-source of funding. Then we will talk about the usefullness of an electronic directory.

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  5. Communication is what technology is about nowadays, and so we have various ways to make it happen.

    Communicating ideas to others via forums etc is very old in tech terms and I’m surprised there isn’t some form of community for the care sector to talk and communicate, with a small back office team to produce articles to draw people in and create talking points. It’s cheap and easy to implement after all. Your main issue would be moderators, but then that’s the same for all forums.

    I can see where you’re coming from with using technology to communicate information to service users and cetainly implementing makaton or some other form on a tablet would be possible. Cost being one of the more problematic things, software to do the job plus lock out any other user (you don’t think you’re going to get a laptop AND a tablet do you?) plus hardware. Not cheap but then it’s about cost/benefit ratios really.

    The Wii. Got to admit it was a pain in the bum to get it to be used, partly because of the lack of games but also because it tended to be a lot of hassle for staff or someone wanted to watch the TV. Would the Kinect be of any more use? Hmm, hard to say, depends on the desired end result really. I think if it were used as a way for service users to be creative I think that you might get some interesting results.

    Databases that automatically update? That would mean having a human input the data at the right point to make sure it worked. Not automatic but then database maintenance can be costly like that.

    Not sure what else there is tbh, from the service user point of view we want information, the easier to access the better. We also want more comfortable ways to communicate, talking isn’t alsways the best method. Certainly some things to think about here.

    • Thanks for your extensive response. I guess I was thinking less about reality and more about a fantasy wishlist without considering practicalities like financing. I do think new ways of delivering information to service users needs to be explored though as not everyone wants to or can use a computer directory which is what a lot of money seems to be being pumped into at the moment.
      The thing about the Kinect is that it doesn’t need a controller – while a bit clunky at the moment I see much more scope in movement recognition type technology as opposed to the type with the controller.

      • Never worry about the financial side, thats for the accountants and the people who’re really good at arguing. A lot of tech solutions come from fantasy wishlists so keep wishing, someone might just create something to make it a reality.

  6. I’m a librarian and mentalist, and (my MA having been conducted in view of participatory development), am *incredibly* frustrated at how poorly technology is used in mental health.

    Databases of services are cheap enough to produce (it harnesses existing content, and it’s relatively easy to get funding for a one-off project) but as you/others have said, is pointless in that it doesn’t meet users (unknown) needs, and becomes so quickly out of date as to be a pointless waste of money. And as you say, systems are designed without consultation of users or their staff (librarians are *good* at stakeholder management, but in the information rush we’ve been sidelined by Information Technologists whose focus is on tech rather than info, and care nowt about how people use it!)

    I’m generally really bothered by top-down service development and delivery, as it is actually enforcing exclusion. Digital penetration has gone so far now that the ‘have nots’ are excluded on multiple grounds, but no-one is seeking to really understand why people don’t use tech. In my therapeutic environment, for example, people feel too old to use email or the internet (but happily text on their mobile phone) or need help overcoming dyslexia/learning disorders to use/access information. I’m *so* pro-madosphere because it is service-user and service-disengaged led, and it’s in the lessons from there that I see change happening. You can’t force someone to pick up a Wii (as Null says there are practical reasons), but the point you’ve made about tablets & interactivity is *awesome*. Thankyou!

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