We keep feeding the machine, but what has the machine done for us?

So I’ll continue of where Ian left off with his blog post about the product, the app, the thing and it’s role in building relationships.

He alluded to a slight change in direction. Previously about surfacing hidden data, now more focused on relationship building.

Social Platforms

My classic reaction to such a proposition is to start thinking in terms of social platforms. In this case i’m keen to try and steer away from that direction as social-platforms can be reductive in their nature. Reducing a person down to a profile, an avatar and activity stream. A conversation down to a text box. Text is a low bandwidth communication, phrases can easily taken out of context or – more accurately – out of face. Social platforms have a lot to offer many situations (a-synchronous, trackable, analysable, scalable) but if pushed too far down this direction people become purely the meat that drives digital interactions.

Image borrowed from here – thanks!

Social technology should be about triggering you to call or meet someone. They should be focused as a supplement to richer communication channels, not a replacement a for them. Ironically for a project that is looking into using a database-driven-applications to help with Child protection Terri Dowty nails it:

“Rather than trying to reduce child protection to an industrial process, the government should give maximum priority to the current staffing crisis in social services. No computer can substitute for the intuition and professional judgment of an experienced social worker, nor for conversations between real live people; hunches don’t readily translate into words on a database.”

Getting out the way

It has become clear during this project that what enables frontline workers to be brilliant is professional experience. Hunches, trust, “knowing where to look”. To try and replicate these intuitions in data formats and interface design seems naive at best and an enormous waste of money at worst. I’ve been trying to think of an application that I don’t notice i’m using, that fades into the background and help me get on with my job.

Dropbox gets out of my way, but remove it from my Mac now and I’d feel like i hade lost a limb. Delicious doesn’t expect sharing of me, it primarily offers me an easier way of getting to my bookmarks. The network effect is secondary collateral. Schooloscope offers data to me at a glance before I decide to take the time to deep dive into something. Between those three points is something, what it is quite yet we are not sure, but there is definitely something.

Mega Systems

What we don’t want to do is build a mega-system. Much as it would be easier to create The-One-Central-System that everyone agrees to use. Over time these become unmanageable and out of date.


To my mind OpenAir offers the false promise that you might ever “know the status of everything”. Aside from the philosophical complexities of knowing everything, there are design implications to offering this kind of functionality!

A more apt example was the much referenced ContactPoint. Mentioned by the frontline workers as A Good Thing I can understand why, it exposed unknown colleagues in a fairly quick and simple fashion. Yet it only takes a moment of digging into how it was conceived that it starts to sings of Ministerial panic – “held information on all children under 18 in England”. All the Children? All of them? Even those you have never met and have no need to? With the god-like powers of hindsight I wonder why it took roughly £220m in payment to Capgemini to conclude that it might not be welcomed by everyone.

I’d rather say we don’t know everything. Professionals just know when things seem to be running well and from quantitative feedback can you can validate that things are improving.

Lets lay off the reporting sytsems and focus technology either removing tangible barriers or honing in on the parts of frontline workers daily lives that work well and supercharge them.

Personally my quote over the 2 days of workshopping was the exacerbated release of:

“We keep feeding the machine, but what has the machine done for us?”

Fingers crossed we make a good first step towards giving something back.

Insights from the Munro Report

On Tuesday, Professor Eileen Munro published the interim report of her Independent Children Protection Review titled The Child’s Journey.  There’s a clear message within her report: social workers are spending too much time on paperwork and focusing on managerial targets and not enough time on the important work of developing relationships with the children and families they are there to help.

Mounting paperwork – Photo courtesy of Luxomedia

I’m really pleased to see how the report takes a holistic, child-centred approach to assessing the children’s services.  I’m also excited to see it places an importance on relationships (especially after my blog post earlier this week).  There’s a lot more to this interim review however I’ve highlighted two significant insights that I think are relevant to Safeguarding 2.0:

1. Children must have a space to share their stories

“Maltreatment rarely presents with a clear, unequivocal picture.  In general, it is the totality of information, the overall pattern of the child’s story, that raises suspicions of possible abuse or neglect.” para. 2.12

The report recognises that for a social worker to truly understand a child’s current situation and how they can help they must understand the context of their story and their family history.  This rings true with what we’ve been hearing throughout Safeguarding 2.0.  In phase one of the project, Jeffrey lamented how he wished for a computer system that provided a space for him to simply write the child’s story.  More recently, here in Lichfield, I’ve observed how the various multi-agency meetings act as an effective way for professionals to share their various views of a case, and to construct a deeper understanding of the narrative and context of the child.

The report goes further, advocating that children should be able to share their story and vision on their own terms, which is something I whole-heartedly agree with.  Munro is forward thinking when it comes to ICT, making a case that future products should make full use of media:

“Digital stories and photographs, for example, could be embedded in the child’s record providing additional and meaningful information to the child and significantly improving upon what is available with paper documents.” para. 4.29

When conducting research and interviews, I often use timelines and family trees to help capture and illustrate the story I’m hearing.  They’re useful as they offer the opportunity to check back with the respondent that I’ve captured the story correctly, and also as acting as a prompt to go deeper into a particular period of time or relatoinship.  I’m sure exercises like this would prove a valuable way to involve children and young people in recording their stories, and ICT should make this a simple, delightful experience.

2. The system must take (and support) a multiagency approach

By now the idea of a multiagency approach to child welfare is pretty much ubiquitous.  However, it also goes without saying that there are still significant barriers to achieving this.

In last months workshops I wasn’t surprised to hear how front line staff are not always aware of each others’ services and roles.  Specifically we heard about how useful it was for a professional to know someone, personally, within an organisation, as these relationships helped keep them up to date with the changing landscape of services and provision.

The review backs this up, stating:

“Evidence provided to this review also shows the mixed experiences and absence of consensus about how well professionals are understanding one another’s roles and working together.  This emphasises the importance of thoughtfully designed local agreements between professionals about how best to communicate with each other about their work with a family, and supporting those conversations with a locally agreed format for recording the needs of a family and the action and help that will be provided.” para. 2.23

The above recommendation is reassuring, as the Lichfield Strategic Partnership are running the Supporting Families Project to do just that: develop local agreements between the professionals on how they can work together, with the more complex families in the district to better help them.  And this is where I think our product has the opportunity to really add value.  The review goes on to recognise that a common factor to local authorities that have successfully adopted multi-agency models “has been the creation of channels through which practitioners from different agencies can discuss their concerns, either in a meeting room or simply over the telephone.  The value of these informal but strategic conversations is that they enable professionals to exchange ideas without needing to enter formal proceedings.  It is these informal relationships between different types of expert which the review holds to be crucial to improving early year help para. 2.42.”

Now this is where I think technology can really help.  It could provide a really easy way to identify who is currently working with a child, their role, and how they can be contacted.  I’m not talking about a huge, mega-database (read Contact Point) but rather a simple way for a child to consent to a professional sharing the fact they are in touch, and therefore creating an easy way for child, family and professional to see who exactly is in the team around the child.

There will be more on this soon, as we start to sketch up how a product can work in practice, but in the mean time I’d encourage you to have a read of the interim review.

Building relationships

A lot has been happening in Lichfield this past month.  I’ve been meeting lots of people who work closely with families, children and vulnerable adults.  It’s been great hearing their stories and I’ve always come away feeling inspired by their relentless enthusiasm for the job given the challenges they face.

What’s struck me is there’s clearly a role for better products to support them in doing their work.  While it’s been fascinating seeing how current systems are used to manage their cases, I’m amazed at the amount of patience front line staff have in using them.  I think it’s fair to say that much of what is used was not developed with usability in mind.  Computers running terminal interfaces, displaying dense screens of data prefixed with acroynms appear perplexing as an outsider, as does the need to trawl through nine or so systems to look for a particular record.  Every time I told someone that we were going to build something ‘delightful’, I was met with a wry smile.  But to me, this is really important.  What we build must be pleasurable.  It must take away some of the day-to-day pain of the job.  If it does this successfully, inevitability it will be used.

So with that in mind, we hosted two important workshops last week.  They were a chance to bring together staff from across the organisations—district nurses, youth workers, social workers, fire technicians, police, teachers—to reflect on what we were learning and to help shape the specification for the product. There was a fantastic turn out for the workshops and as we went around the room stating why each of us was there that day, it was clear that there was a general feeling of how important interagency working, and sharing, is.

“I’d rather be in court defending why I chose to share information, than why I didn’t.”

Broadly the days were split into three parts:

  1. Hearing from front line staff what helped them do their jobs and what were the barriers.
  2. Showing participants what we mean by ‘delightful’ products, and point towards the sorts of things we think could be built to support them.
  3. Gaining an understanding of what information about clients that they found useful.

Particpants mapping information they feel is valuable and what they’d like to know from other agencies.

We’re still very must in the thick of reflecting on the material coming out of the two days, however for me the main theme that emerge was the importance of the relationships between professionals in different agencies (and of course the client) when working with people with complex needs.  That might sound obvious, but on the other hand it became apparent through discussions that developing relationships can be difficult.  We heard how people don’t always know which other organisations are involved with a particular client, and when they do know, it’s not always clear which professional is responsible.

So that’s got us thinking from a different angle. Previously the product proposition was that surfacing data stored within the various silos was the way forward.  Now it feels more valuable build a product that supports people to build relationships, both across agencies, and with the client.  If we tackle this successfully, it will lead to more trust and ultimately easier exchange of information.