COMMENTARYA Digital Environment Approach: FourTechnologies That Will Disrupt Social WorkPracticeLauri Goldkind and Lea WolfO ur human experience is mediated with and by technology. Social work offers a panoramic perspective on individualsand issues, insisting on the importance of the ecology of interaction between person and environment. Given this historic strength, social workerscannot ignore the explosive growth and pervasiveimpact of technology or fail to recognize its rolein shaping culture. Beyond its capacity to enhancewhat we offer to our clients, technology is a prompt,a demand to reimagine our core values in the context of a changing social space and to develop a mechanics of practice that is amenable to rapid evolution.With this commentary we hope to initiate dialogue: to urge consideration of the implications ofa technology-powered culture for designing socialwork curriculums and training, for reaching acrossdisciplines to improve outcomes, for finding newways for social workers to partner with clients, andfor making these developments tangible and availableto agencies and practitioners. Although technological innovation continuously alters the landscape ofhuman possibility, it does not guarantee momentumtoward the values of social justice. Social work isboth uniquely positioned and ethically obligated toensure that the drive of technological evolution is aproject open to all, and that it does not replicate oramplify existing inequalities.EMERGENT TECHNOLOGICAL INNOVATIONSInternet of ThingsThe Internet of Things (IoT) is a paradigm in whichthe devices that already surround us—from wearable technologies to household appliances to environmental sensors—are equipped with identifying,sensing, networking, and processing capabilities thatenable them to share information, both with eachother and over the Internet (Whitmore, Agarwal, &Da Xu, 2014).It has been estimated that since 2008,the number of devices connected to the Internethas exceeded the number of humans on the planet(Whitmore et al., 2014), and the IoT proposes toattach these everyday devices—in homes, stores,and warehouses, embedded in roads and worn on ourbodies—to the Internet, generating nearly unlimiteddata. The IoT renders the inanimate world alert,ensuring that mechanics of exchange in social workwill be documented and reported more comprehensively than ever before, as clients, social workers, services and tangible goods are tracked by connectedequipment and devices.The anticipated efficiencies of the IoT (still moreconcept than integrated reality) will transform systems ranging in scale from the human body to thepublic sector. From the fine-tuning of personalhealth based on constant biological signaling to theremote monitoring of client medication compliance via ingestible sensors to the precise targeting ofservice hours, benefits, or tangible goods, the IoTwill alter how we assess, react to, and calibrate theenvironment. This stream of information will reconfigure the relationships that constitute socialwork, raising issues of autonomy, privacy, and productivity for both clients and workers. Currently,the IoT paradigm—an eager vision of how this realtime information could reduce waste, eliminateredundancy, and inspire the productive reconfiguration of service delivery—coexists with calls foruniversal regulation designed to limit invasive monitoring and the commercialization of personal data.Big DataAccording to Getz (2014), “Each day we create 2.5quintillion bytes of data generated by a variety ofdoi: 10.1093/sw/swu045 © 2014 National Association of Social Workers 85sources, from purchase transaction records to healthcare medical images and from scientific researchfindings to social media messages” (p. 28). Big datais a hybrid concept, representing both massive andcomplex sets of information as well as the processof applying digital tools for identifying and modeling the trends embedded in such data. Specifically,the terms “data mining” and “big data analytics”refer to the translation of information into value: theprocess by which aggregating and analyzing massivesets of data can yield patterns that may be invisibleor impossible to predict at the individual or smallsample level.The work that social workers perform requiresan escalating familiarity with data, from the act ofrecording information into proprietary systems toan ability to analyze collections of output. Like alltechnology, big data suggests both possibility andcaveat. Although the integration of client information drawn from agencies, public records, and theInternet could provide an instantly available dynamic record of strengths, potential service needs,diagnoses, and historic service usage for any client,such real-time compositing might constitute anunacceptable loss of privacy for an individual; andthe impersonal analysis of personal history, Internetrecord, and demographic information could leadto stigmatization of individuals, geographic areas,or groups. Big data describes a dynamic process relevant to social work: the transformation of the microscopic informational detritus of human activity,via informed analysis, into a new mechanics for understanding how individuals interact with oneanother and with their environment.GamificationGamification refers broadly to the application ofgame design elements to existing process and services to engage and motivate individuals (Schoech,Boyas, Black, & Elias-Lambert, 2013). It speaks tothe use of game design techniques, game thinking,and game mechanics (competition systems thatintegrate points, badges, rewards, and punishments[Rao, 2013]) in nongame contexts, such as learningscenarios and behavior change. Gamification is, at itscore, a strategy for engagement, and this novel platform offers social work new therapeutic capacity,the possibility to reach and involve populationsresistant to traditional mental health interventions,and the potential for new forms of outreach andeducation.Studies have described the use of game-basedinterventions that target specific components ofaddiction and substance abuse, depressive symptomatology, and relationship violence prevention,among many other foci (Rao, 2013; Schoech et al.,2013). One example, Blues Buddies, is a social network that encourages people with mild to moderate depression to learn and adopt tools to copepositively by entering a social network that incorporates shared learning and reciprocal supportswhile also promoting one-to-one relationships(Rao, 2013). Gamification offers social work a contemporary paradigm for enlisting participation:potentially providing clients new tools to assumeexpertise and ownership of well-being, engagingthose more willing to game than to talk, and inviting the manufacture of public awareness out of firstperson virtual experience.Mobile TechnologiesThe use of mobile technologies has exploded. Ofthe world’s estimated 7 billion people, 6 billion haveaccess to mobile phones. Significantly fewer, only4.5 billion, have access to working toilets (Wang,2013). Far evolved from a device to connect people, smartphones—those with Internet-enabledfunctionality—allow users the ability to conducttheir lives virtually: banking, shopping, consumingmedia, and even accessing mental health services,immediately and from any location (Getz, 2012).The attributes of mobile technology—the way inwhich it collapses the traditional barriers of timeand space—have created a perception of constantimmediacy. Such transformation, registered bothinternally and environmentally, charges this technology simultaneously with promise and challengefor social work.Mobile technologies are among those most readily and consciously adopted by social workers.Technologies directed to the specifics of therapeutic social work are already in play—including reference materials that focus on prescription druginformation and diagnostic criteria, mobile-enabledcrisis intervention (some 911 systems already moving toward a text-based model), and mobile configurations that allow for remote therapeutic interaction.Global events have broadcast the power of mobiletechnologies in campaigns for social justice, and traditional social services delivery will also be significantly enhanced by mobile technologies. Remotedocumentation, access to therapy, and medication86 Social Work Volume 60, Number 1 January 2015management could streamline client care; supportive case management could offer clients mobilealerts to upcoming appointments or court dates,enhanced by specific instructions or travel directions. Among those discussed here, mobile technologies may be the most visible in present-day socialwork practice. Yet the speed of their adoptionthroughout the world, their quick-accruing capacities, and their encroachment into our collectivedefinition of the self portend an accelerating yieldof unimaginable change.CONCLUSIONThe power of these tools can immediately enhancesocial work practice. From supplementing treatment with games to checking benefits eligibilityvia an application, the potential of technology toimprove services delivery is undeniable. Yet evenas we engage these tools to generate solutions tothe logistics and dilemmas of practice, it is imperative to launch a conceptual reevaluation of how theessential values of social work operate in a worldwhere individuals and their environments havebeen reshaped by the live presence of technology.The four technologies outlined in this commentary are widely relevant to effective practice. Yettheir scope, in aggregate, is also a reminder of howbroadly technology will change the way we live andrelate, and should be a prompt to a project of deliberate revitalization across the field. As a disciplinebased on advocacy for the successful titration betweenpeople and the systems and environment that surround them, social work is uniquely situated tooffer a human compass in the conversation abouttechnology, and to represent the essential ethicalvalues of social justice and connection in a realitywhose constant engine is change.REFERENCESGetz, L. (2012). Mobile app technology for social workers.Social Work Today, 12(3), 8.Getz, L. (2014). Big data’s impact on social services. SocialWork Today, 14(2), 28.Rao, V. (2013, April). Challenges of implementing gamification for behavior change: Lessons learned from thedesign of Blues Buddies. In Proceedings of CHI 2013Workshop “Designing Gamification” (pp. 61–64). Alpha,NJ: Sheridan Communications.Schoech, D., Boyas, J. F., Black, B. M., & Elias-Lambert, N.(2013). Gamification for behavior change: Lessonsfrom developing a social, multiuser, Web-tablet basedprevention game for youths. Journal of Technology inHuman Services, 31(3), 197–217.Wang, Y. (2013). More people have cell phones than toilets, U.N.study shows. Retrieved from http://newsfeed.time.com/2013/03/25/more-people-have-cell-phonesthan-toilets-u-n-study-shows/Whitmore, A., Agarwal, A., & Da Xu, L. (2014). TheInternet of Things—A survey of topics and trends.Information Systems Frontiers, 1–14.Lauri Goldkind, PhD, is assistant professor, Graduate Schoolof Social Service, Fordham University, 113 West 60th Street,New York, NY 10023; e-mail: [email protected] Wolf, MSW, is a consultant, Brooklyn, NY.Original manuscript received June 1, 2014Final revision received July 3, 2014Accepted July 11, 2014Advance Access Publication October 13, 2014Goldkind and Wolf / A Digital Environment Approach: Four Technologies That Will Disrupt Social Work Practice 87Copyright of Social Work is the property of Oxford University Press / USA and its contentmay not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyrightholder’s express written permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles forindividual use.
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