England & Wales Education and children's services, HR, workforce and communications, Technology

Can data save the future of children?


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In our most recent local government finance survey, children’s services eclipsed adult social care as councils’ biggest financial worry. The LGA estimates  that  there  will be  a £2bn funding gap by 2020. There are a record number of children in care, with an estimated 90 children being taken into care each day. Social workers are ‘firefighting’, dealing with only the most serious cases and shutting down those that are deemed ‘not yet’ serious enough.

For compelling financial and moral reasons, children’s services must come top of the list of services ripe for transformation. Councils need every tool available to them to save the life chances, and sometimes very lives, of children. At a recent techUK and LGiU roundtable on the potential of digital to improve outcomes for children, it was clear that councils and the technology industry are working hard to do just that.

Finding the patterns of unhappiness

Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that “all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But unhappy families do exhibit common traits. Data analysis and artificial intelligence can easily pick up these patterns. Information already collected about families can be used to spot those heading for trouble. Hackney is building models to help identify and work with families before they reach crisis point, offering less expensive, less intrusive, and less stigmatising support.

While artificial intelligence can never fully take the place of human decision-making,  it can be used to highlight cases that need   a second review even as social workers are pressed to work with families with more emergent problems.

Outside so-called ‘troubled families,’ we should use available data and better intelligence to seek better outcomes for all children. Technology can play a role in helping children achieve better educational outcomes or helping local government identify the best investments in children’s futures – from play groups and youth clubs to programmes in parks.

Barriers to progress

While technology itself is not the problem, there are still barriers to using data and tech to support better outcomes for children. Data cleaning and matching is  essential, but this requires a significant investment in skilled labour.

Hard-pressed councils may find it difficult to invest in data hygiene today for better potential outcomes tomorrow. Without significant investment in people with skills and their time, councils and the wider public sector will be unable to harness the benefits of artificial intelligence because data is too scattered and not in the right format. Councils already pay significant amounts of money for needed systems integration, but without both technical understanding and service domain knowledge they cannot reap the benefits of these approaches.

Sharing data inside and between organisations remains an issue. Separate systems and separate services mean that information – and individuals – can fall through the gaps. GDPR has also created a great deal of anxiety about what data can be shared.

Procurement, too, is a problem. Tech companies large and small are developing innovative approaches, but local authorities cannot always implement it. Neither councils nor the technology industry feel that there is an efficient market to match real-world problems with potential solutions.

And there are ethical considerations. Data can be wrong and algorithms can be misapplied, creating stress and stigma from misplaced interventions. Just because we use computer programmes, it does not mean that the process is free of human bias or assumptions about individuals in relation to their social status, wealth or ethnicity.

A brighter future?

Using available technology well offers the chance to help children before their lives reach crisis point or fail to reach their potential, but we must help councils take advantage of this opportunity.

Regional bodies are working on developing better and more transparent markets, and councils are embracing the potential of digital to transform services. But we need to invest more to help councils understand the potential benefits and pitfalls and resource local government to invest in analysis.

Yet still there is a bigger trick that we may be missing. Most work seems to fall under the category of service improvement rather than service transformation. Currently, crisis services to families rely on identifying children in need through human intelligence, a report from a family member, health professional, teacher or others.

Many of these cases do not go further than an initial check. Some cases come back into the system later, some do not. Identifying children who need help earlier is an enormous benefit and not one to be undervalued, but that is where the benefits of technology might seem to end. It is an enormous benefit to be able to identify children at risk early to create the space for prevention, but there is much more we could do.

If we already knew how to solve the problem of abuse and neglect solely through social care intervention, we would have done so. Human beings continue to behave in astonishingly cruel ways, so technology will not be able to completely solve that issue.

However, there may be ways that technology enable us to actually help families overcome problems, to self-serve and engage in better strategies for child rearing, thus leaving direct intervention to the most intractable cases. There are already some examples of tech being used to support older children in transition from foster care to independent lives. The NHS supports digital platforms  to support better mental health and wellbeing, and similar approaches could be used to help make families more resilient.

Outside of troubled families, technology could be better used to help children achieve more at school – using data to understand the patterns of kids who are underachieving across a range of learning styles and potential. While many secondary schools do use technology to support a better working relationship between parents and schools, there is little at the crucial primary school age to make sure that children have a solid educational foundation.

We have the power of technology to make a world of difference to the lives of children, but it is rarely employed to its full potential. To make a brighter future for children, we need to invest in the skills and resources to turn the data we already have into powerful information, and develop the vision to challenge the way we currently deliver services to families and children.

This article was originally published in Public Sector Executive.  

The LGiU Fortnightly podcast edition from 31 May also discusses this issue and features an interview with techUK’s Georgina Maratheftis.