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.

Social Media and Social Work – Part 4 Social Networks and Forums

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In this post, I am going to look at the ways that I use and have used social networking sites such as LinkedIn and Facebook in a professional capacity and I also want to touch on the wider uses of forums and discussion groups.

Perhaps this would have been the logical place to start the ‘series’ because when you mention ‘social media’ or ‘social networking’ the most commonly held (and used) example is Facebook.

Facebook is the most prolific site with over 500 million active users around the world. That’s a fairly mindblowing figure when you stop and think about it.

So how would I use Facebook in a work environment. The simple answer is that, in general, I don’t.  I favour Twitter over Facebook for link sharing and random work-related thoughts. Facebook identifies me by name and location. My family and friends update me on their news. I have some work colleagues or ex-work colleagues as my friends but anyone who has ‘friended’ me on facebook and reads this can testify to the dullness of my updates!

This is intentional. There are ways to close down Facebook regarding information that is accessible and it’s a good idea to do that for reasons of privacy. I might sometimes share an interesting story I find on Facebook but I’m more likely to share pictures of baby animals and other non-controversial irrelevancies. The reason for this is that generally when the people I know ‘go’ to Facebook, it is for updating/chatting to friends – it has a perfect use for students at the same universities to stay in touch throughout placements, for example – but for me, it doesn’t seem to be the best environment for sharing more controversial or immediate items. Partly because half the people from school who have ‘friended’ me on Facebook seem to have grown into Tories…

However I fully accept that I don’t explore the full potential of Facebook. The ability to set up groups both closed and open groups allows for discussions to take place.  You can’t ignore the user base of Facebook. I have, for example, set up a ‘fan page’ for this site but I am less good at actually checking and using it! Fan pages though can be used as discussions and to form more integrated communities around certain issues and debates.

You can, of course, create ‘false’ Facebook identities. I know a number of people who use maiden names or slightly different names to use Facebook just to make more of a distinction with work.

As for LinkedIn, which claims to be a more ‘business’ focussed network, I am much more sceptical.  There are claimed to be 100 million users (although ‘user’ is more of ‘people who have signed up’ than active users who keep returning).  LinkedIn is presented as a more ‘serious’ social network where you connect with contacts on a professional rather than personal level. Like Facebook, your name and place of work is identified and there are ways and means to use both open and closed discussion groups.  If you see yourself as a ‘product’ to be marketed and sold, I suspect it has more use. My personal experience is that is that most contacts that have  made with me are from predatory recruitment consultants and I’m not sure how comfortable I feel about advertising my place of work so openly.   It is open enough to be searchable from Google if you don’t lock down the privacy settings and to identify both name and place of work.  I understand that not everyone operates in the same kind of arena that I do and for most people in most spheres of life, that would pose no problem whatsoever but social work is and can be different. Sometimes the actions we take mean that being openly searchable is not necessarily ‘a good thing’. I’m open to persuasion though so if anyone can convince me that would be fine.

I have tended to prefer ‘Communities of Practice’ as a work-related discussion forum which runs on a government site and again, it attaches your name to your work location but the discussions there are much more valuable as they are more specifically related to the workplace in the UK.  It is not ‘open’ in the same way and content is not search engine linked which, to be honest, I see as a bonus.

There are ‘communities’ about many of the more specialist subjects that might come up in statutory work in particular. I’ve found it to be a useful source of information for those with much more experience and I’ve also found it to be a ‘safe’ place to ask some of the questions that might come up in practice. Some of the ‘communities’ are only open to invite, some to allcomers with an interest and it is quite easy to set up your own communities. The attachment of name and employer mitigate some of the tendency for ‘trolls‘ to emerge on some of the more open forums.

Then there are other forums of interest – namely those that are hosted and set up on their own websites. An example of this would be the ‘Carespace’  from Community Care which is a discussion forum for those interested in social care in the UK. Like any anonymous community, there is an element of mischief making among some participants who may find that anonymity allows them a freer rein and there are the alarmingly regular requests for help with essays by people who seem baffled by some of the most basic concepts but in general the good outweighs the bad.

BASW have their own ‘forum’ which is only open to members and the GSCC have their own forums for those who are registered with them. The problem with both of these is that there is a ‘higher’ bar to membership. Sometimes making things as simple as possible (create a  username – login –) make for the more vibrant and active communities or a login via Facebook and/or LinkedIn which only require a ‘one click’ to join a particular group.  I haven’t joined either the BASW nor the GSCC forums partly because I don’t like the idea of my membership number or registration number to be linked to my log in.

Some services such as Free Forums’ allow anyone to set up a free forum for themselves.

Then there are some other mailing lists that I belong to. Yahoo and Google both allow for these groups to be created and ‘posts’ can be emailed round members or visited ‘on the site’.  For those ‘old school’ users, Google has archived the old Usenet groups from the early days of ‘internet connectivity’ but they and their successors are far more accessible now! Obviously, the level of information shared can be more closely focused on what you choose to share.

The positives of social networks and forums to discuss are very clear – on one level it is the absolute bedrock of social media – discussions can take place and there is a sense of ‘democracy’ in that anyone can start and contribute to them – depending obviously on the ‘open or closed’ proviso.  There are many different platforms for the discussion and debate to take place   – in some ways too many choices, real name or pseudonym, real ‘person’ or caricature of an identity.

One of the basic fundamentals in discussions online is the veneer than allows on one level a deeper debate of issues and thoughts and the cloak of anonymity that can allow a more unfettered rein to some issues that could offend or upset. It is far easier to get ‘wound up’ about a forum post than it is to feel angry or frustrated in discussion with someone face to face. Misinterpretation can be an issue to be aware of in all communication media.

However as the ways to share information grow, we have so many more opportunities to learn and gather sources and knowledge and to share.

All that’s up to us to do is to find the appropriate channel and that’s a tough decision in itself.

If you are interested in the use of social media in social work, please look back at the other posts in this series.

Part 1 – Blogs

Part 2 – Social Bookmarking

Part 3 Twitter

Thanks. I’d welcome any input about other communities/forums that have been useful to you and how you use Facebook/LinkedIn