Ensuring that digital public social services leave no one behind

Public social services leaders and frontline staff alike have much to learn from embracing digital technologies. At a recent European Social Network (ESN)’s seminar Make it Digital!, in cooperation with IBM Watson Health, we learned that new tools like virtual reality (VR) or artificial intelligence (AI), can be very valuable to improve public social services, but also that they should be adopted when they can genuinely make systems more efficient for staff and end users.

Focus on the end result

A key element in digitisation is to focus on the end results. “Many different care providers need to support citizens in a coordinated way, and we need to empower people in a way that is best needed for them”, said Sean Renner, EMEA Lead at IBM Watson Health. “So, what we should do is to look at where it is right to digitise. We do not have to digitise everything but where it is easier and safer for citizens and social workers, where it adds the speed and the value.”

Data for decision-making

State of the art technology now allows us to gather and assess big volumes of data and gain valuable insight. Thanks to the use of AI, for instance machine learning, deep learning and speech to text technology, local authorities across Europe are now starting to make better use of data to tackle social problems or to help professionals make decisions about the types of support that beneficiaries are entitled to.

This is the idea behind the first collective intelligence project implemented by ESN member, the social services department in Barcelona city council. “With the information we have from 300,000 files in our social services system, including all interventions with people supported by social services, we have created a model with machine learning and deep learning techniques that process the text and makes a proposal for the professional”, explained Luis Torrens, social innovation director. “So, the model only suggests an intervention based on the data and the assessment; it is the professional who makes the decision.”

Overcoming barriers

Concerns were raised about bias in algorithms used in AI. Andreas Gollner, Strategist at Government Health & Human Services with IBM Watson Health, explained that eliminating bias starts with design and that there are frameworks that enable them to check whether the systems they build are bias-free. “It is a matter of constant checking and implementing lessons learnt, which means that sometimes we have to make tough decisions as well as we did with face recognition.”

Another potential barrier in the digitisation process is the need to change the culture of an organisation to make it digitally focused. To get staff themselves to use digital services, having them involved in the process is crucial. In Barcelona, staff have been involved at every stage of the process. The concept was created with the participation of professionals, who also reviewed the dictionaries, and validated the initial results. Social services professionals have also asessed the system’s suggestions and explained that in most cases they were as adequate as the conclusions they would have reached themselves.

Digital transformation is not only crucial for innovation, but also to maximise expertise and improve the ability of public services to help more people. Santa Casa, which is responsible for the provision of all social care services in the city of Lisbon, has seen how the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated their transition to digital services. Though it is impossible to do much social work remotely, the process has been reshaped to ensure the provision of services and the safety of employees and people using services. For instance, “the implementation of telecare through a platform that collects data to use different devices and monitor users’ healthcare, to issue warnings and keep in touch with the users”, explained Pedro Monteiro, Project Manager for Digital Transformation with Santa Casa.

Central to Santa Casa’s digital transformation strategy is their VR project. They are starting to use VR to better the lives of older people living in their nursing homes by reducing loneliness, improving their mental health and transporting them to places they could not visit otherwise because of health or mobility issues. Mr. Monteiro explained that with the implementation of VR, they hope to complement conventional therapies, prevent and delay cognitive ageing.

Technology as an enabler to supporting those in need

Digital tools should be the solution to problems, and it is important for public organisations not to lose sight of their values. Overcoming digitisation barriers is important because digitalisation can support professionals and help vulnerable people. The examples presented at the webinar show how technology and digital processes can be an enabler to helping staff and people who need social services as long as they always have in mind the aim to reduce inequalities, respond to the local realities and the needs of those in the frontline.