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Communications gadgetry might enable social workers to spend more time with clients and prevent dangerous situations from developing. Simeon Brody reports

Social workers are not generally considered to be at the vanguard of the computer revolution. But some pioneers are discovering that cutting edge information technology can be used to help them work more efficiently and safely.

British Association of Social Workers president Ray Jones says social workers are increasingly IT literate and younger staff are often shocked to find how archaic the technology is within some social services.

He points out that service users are also increasingly expecting to be able to communicate with social workers electronically. He adds: “So, as social workers, we cannot, should not and do not want to be left in the data and communications dark ages.”

But Jones emphasises that new technology needs investment in hardware, networks and training, which is often neglected when funding is tight, and that its implementation requires leadership from the government to make sure there is consistency and transferability between systems.

Consultant and former director of Edinburgh social services Duncan Macaulay is working with IT firm CapGemini on developing ways technology can help social services.

“If we give workers freedom to spend more time face to face with clients then we will achieve a position where the PC is seen as a friend,” he says.

The London Borough of Barnet has supplied all of its social workers with XDAs – a mobile phone-sized computer and communication device (see Protecting social workers) to improve their safety and hence their retention rate.

One team is also testing the use of portable “tablet” computers, which can be used to access client records, e-mails and the internet on the move.

Tony Nakhimoff, manager for improving services at the council’s children and families service, says the experiment means the team is looking to reduce its desk space by 40 per cent as staff can do most of their work away from the office.

Housing charity Shelter has also embraced technology to improve communications between its 50 UK offices. Head of IT Jon Cheyne says Shelter has introduced Voice Over Internet Protocol (Voip), which allows all the offices to make their phone calls over the charity’s computer data network.

“The Voip project has effectively given Shelter a single national phone system – everyone is an extension so you can forward a call to anyone, anywhere,” says Cheyne.
He says the approach has been “incredibly cost effective” compared with traditional telephone technology.

“The Voip has delivered new offices at a fraction of the cost. Before, even the smallest office had to have a complete phone system and phonelines whereas, now, each desk gets a phone that is actually part of our HQ system – so just the cost of the individual handset.”

Protecting social workers
Under a new system being tested by Barnet Council, the first thing a social worker does when arriving at a client’s home is press the amber button on his/her handheld communicator (XDA).

The console automatically rings a computerised call centre which asks the social worker to state their location and saves the information.

If the worker does not re-contact the computer within 90 minutes or if they press the red button on their console, the system goes into alert mode. Alerts will be generated on the manager’s and divisional manager’s computer and mobile phone and on the duty desk’s computer.

In the red alarm mode, it is also possible to ring the XDA, which will have an open line, and listen to what is going on in its vicinity.

Barnet is currently formulating the best possible response to an alert, which may include ringing the police or locating another nearby social worker. But it emphasises that the system will not be put into place until it is completely failsafe.

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