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Digital and technology resources are increasingly used in the sector, from AI for decision-making to automation and consultation, challenging the notion that social services and technology do not mix. But, along with opportunities to reach more people using social services, professionals need to be aware of the pitfalls.

Technology is increasingly transforming social services. The Covid-19 pandemic, when social services professionals had to turn suddenly to ensure that people’s needs could be met remotely, certainly accelerated the pace. But even before, many social services professionals were moving in this direction through the use of remote video counselling and monitoring, smartphone apps, online peer support, electronic records, intelligent meters and sensors in people’s homes.

At this month’s  European Social Services Conference, we heard about the many ways in which social services professionals are using technology not just for service delivery but also to advance the profession’s commitment to social inclusion. For instance, we learnt about the increasing use of larger amounts of data and their assessment through algorithms to support decision making. This may involve live data dashboards that were set up during Covid-19 to monitor outbreaks in care homes or the system making a proposal for a social services intervention or matching job seekers with the right type of support.

Connected data and case management systems have been developed in social services for several years. They may include digital case management in social benefits and services, integrated health and social care, case management for the procurement of technology, and child protection. For example, Primero is an open-source software platform which has been used in Romania to integrate three existing systems into one platform for the identification and registration of Ukrainian women and children fleeing the war.

There is technology for how to connect different systems together, but European, national and local rules do not always line up right. Besides integrating data, the question today is how to make it simple for people accessing services to be able to access their own data. In Finland, they have introduced Kanta, which is a digital data case-management system that integrates different sources of data related to someone’s life and support. Both social workers and people using social services can have seamless access to the person’s data and prevent them from having to repeat their story over and over again.

Another example of the use of technology in social care we learnt about was the implementation of robots in care homes. An RCT led by Professor Chris Papadopoulos in the UK and Japan found that older adults in care homes who interacted with the robots had a significant improvement in their mental health and there was a small positive impact on loneliness too. The limitations centred on the lack of robots’ social and cultural competences. A cultural competent robot could adapt and learn about people’s history and culture through AI and could help, not only with social interactions but also in physiotherapy, medication reminders, or connecting people to family or formal carers, explained Mr Papadopoulos.

There were plenty of discussions on leveraging the use of AI at the conference. Indeed, AI has the capability to anticipate and mitigate potential risks and enable seamless connection between individuals and precisely tailored resources and interventions. Anamika Barman-Adhikari, Associate Professor at the University of Denver (US), has developed an AI-based programme to predict substance use through youth’s digital trace data, while maximising their positive connections by allocating them AI-generated circles of support. This group-based intervention has shown that AI-generated circles of support result in 40 to 70% reduction in substance use compared to random assignment. Tracey Wareing, CEO of the American Public Human Services Association, referred to chatbots for social services delivery and the possibility to go through massive amount of case notes with AI to understand what a family has experienced. But she also asked the audience: “How do we have the best data and ensure that it is being used in an ethical manner?”

AI cannot be blindly trusted. Experiences have shown that bias against families with disabilities and racial minorities can occur. “Effective utilisation of AI empowers social workers to excel in their core strengths of empathy, intuition, and experience, but it is our responsibility to prevent those systems from perpetuating historical injustices and biases,” highlighted Anamika Barman-Adhikari.

Where does the workforce sit within these developments? We heard about several studies that outlined how on average 30% of the workforce, in particular frontline ones, lacked or had very limited digital skills. However, on the other end, young workers were not staying in the industry because they did not have the IT tools they expected to have. So, the question is what digital and IT skills and tools do we need to attract and retain young workers into social services?

As the use of technology continues to evolve, it will be important to strike a balance between leveraging the benefits of digital resources and upholding the core values of the social services sector. By embracing technology responsibly, social services can harness its potential to improve outcomes, enhance efficiency, and promote inclusivity while safeguarding against potential risks and biases.