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Can online innovations enhance social care?

By: shirley_ayres
On: 7th February 2013

To support the launch of our latest provocation paper, 'Can online innovations enhance social care', we are delighted to introduce a new series of blogs from the author, Shirley Ayres.  As a qualified social worker and marketer, who has worked within the care sector for over 35 years, she has extensive experience of helping organisations to understand the value of digital engagement. Through this series, Shirley will explore how digital technology can be used effectively as part of social care and showcase some of the best practice innovations available today.

There has been considerable debate about the role of digital technology in social care. Understandably there are concerns that the use of technology somehow depersonalises what is often a very personal service. I fully accept that technology is not a magic bullet to address all of the complex problems we are confronting as a society and digital technology cannot, of course, replace human contact, kindness, empathy and understanding. But it does allow people to connect in different ways, quickly and easily. Digital technology and social networks provide some of the most powerful tools available today for building a sense of belonging, support and sharing among groups of people who share similar interests and concerns.

I believe we need a dramatic re-think in the way that care and support is organised for adults in the UK. This should focus on keeping people healthy and independent for as long as possible and preventing crises before they occur. It does not seem that statutory social services recognise the reality of the digital age and how technology is supporting the development of new social networks, social learning and sharing resources. We need a major cultural shift which recognises the role of technology in shaping services which are focused around an individual’s needs and aspirations. “The future for personalisation? service users, carers and digital engagement” examined the relevance of social media to the development of personalised social care in general, and to self-directed support in particular. Why do so few local authority directories of care services mention the availability of technology innovations and online resources despite the wide range available?

And the range of resources available (and those in development) really is vast: from Tyze and Mindings to DropBy and Casserole Club to name just a few.   

More of these examples are presented in my Provocation Paper but beyond the challenge of making these better known, there were a number of recurring themes that emerged as I prepared this paper.

Firstly there are a large number of reports about people in later life and their use of the internet, the importance of access to information and support and how to tackle digital exclusion. But there seems to be a disconnect between the many organisations with an interest in this area. I read over sixty papers written by thirty organisations with many sensible and practical recommendations. What is not clear is how many of these recommendations have been implemented.

Secondly there are hundreds of digital technology innovations being developed and supported by a range of funders. Paradoxically we are not using technology to make these innovations more accessible and available to a large market which includes individual users, carers, commissioners and care providers.

Care and support in the 21st century requires much more connected thinking across social services, health, housing, education and employment. Technology and social media can facilitate this process. The increasing use of Twitter and Twitter chats such as @nhssm, a weekly online chat to get the NHS talking about social media and how it can benefit patients, demonstrates the power of digital engagement to break down professional silos.

The difficulty with innovation in the care sector is compounded by the fragmented nature of service provision. Service commissioners are not always aware of what is happening outside of their own locality and innovators are not connected to existing care networks. We need a mindshift away from a focus on technology as a means to an end and to think about how technology can help address social challenges. This is because digital exclusion goes beyond the 7.6m people in UK who have never used the internet. It is also about how technology can improve the quality of life for everyone with better design and improved access to the internet.

A good example of how accessibility issues can be addressed is provided by the Everybody Technology project, which is encouraging collaboration between technology companies, developers and users to create and design 100% inclusive technology.

Enabled by Design is another approach: a community of people who are passionate about well-designed, everyday products that challenge the one-size-fits-all approach to assistive equipment. Enabled by Design encourages people to share their views and experiences of assistive equipment, share wish lists about improving products and services, and post information, reviews and comments. It is an excellent example of a website that encourages people with a disability to share information and thoughts about products and services that are improving the quality of their lives.

But again, the challenge is how can we use technology to connect all of these exciting projects, learn from them and start scaling up innovation to share and promote social innovations for social good? Let us explore appropriate forums online and offline which bring together public, not for profit and private organisations to encourage and support designers, developers and innovators to create new ways of using digital technology to support us all in living more fulfilling and connected lives.

As Professor Stephen Hawking said, when accepting his AbilityNet ‘Excellence in Accessibility Award’ at the Technology4Good awards September 2012: Technology is a vital part of human existence. They show us that the right tools in the right hands can help everyone, regardless of our frailties, to achieve our true potential and advance as a civilisation.”

These are exciting times and I hope my Provocation Paper encourages you to explore the potential of digital technology to enhance social care. I hope you will join me over the coming months as I explore the opportunities and challenges in more depth. I welcome your feedback especially about how the recommendations can be implemented! Do add your comments to the post or use the hashtag #deukcare to comment on Twitter. You can also follow me @shirleyayres


Hello Shirley, Thank you for

Hello Shirley,
Thank you for this article and the provocation paper.
We need provocation.

It feels like there is so much potentially good stuff that just seems to be evading the grasp of mainstream activities.
I wonder if the Wikipedia type approach might be something to think about for getting knowledge exchange about all of the different initiatives?
Rather that agencies taking responsibility, distribute the activity across the enthusiasts who are involved?
The stage before doing is knowing, if propel get to know about things they might then do.

I wonder if a 'wikisoc_care' would have any legs?
Just a thought.

Crowd solutions

I am really inspired by this Shirley, the idea of joining up crowd sourced problems and solutions had got to be a great idea. Our role as a social landlord gives us great 'sofa' insight. We have combined this with online assessments to see how prepared how and ready our new customers are for their homes has given us great insight into the aspirations and challenges our customers face. Sharing insight and using our connections to find innovative solutions has got to be the way forward and a great way to scale up the reach to those who need them most.

Social care innovations

Really interesting paper Shirley for me there are three issues that need to be overcome.
Any social care solutions using online technologies and services need to include strategies for sustaining an online life, people will need help to stay online as the technology advances and peoples' circumstances change. ONS data shows that the older you are the more likely it is that you haven't been online in the last three months.

There seems to be a lot of what Donald clark calls mosquito funded projects, lots of busy local short term pilots, trials, applications and so on. However successful individual projects are this approach isn't sustainable or scaleable. There needs to be greater coordination and cooperation across the sector.

This is connected to the third issue which is a lack of knowledge sharing in the sector, where do you go to find out whats happening and let others know about your project. This shows up in two ways the first by the fact that study after study calls for the similar solutions, for example the development of local hubs or centres for older people or something similar, these places already exist. The second is the lack of a substantive body of readily available research on the impact of the work thats already been done.

Social care innovations

An excellent paper. I like the fact that while it details the many ways new technology can help - particularly with tackling social isolation - it doesn't make the sort of unrealistic claims that the telecare industry does, which try to make believe we can find a technological alternative to almost any human service. One very mundane but nonetheless important issue that needs to be tackled is the compexity of passwords and other online security protocols. These are often too complicated, especially for people with even minor memory loss. There are workable solutions like optical or fingerprint recognition but these are not yet being built into programmes and websites as standard