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Why social care needs to catch up with Big Data

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Social care needs to harness the power of big data to help revolutionise its delivery, leading digital and innovation figures from the sector have said. 

The challenge of privacy remains a dominant topic in healthcare, with ongoing debate about how the NHS and other government bodies use individuals’ data.

And in the first in the first of a series of Digital Fight Club events, a virtual forum for health and social care professionals to discuss hot topics in digital care, the issue of big data in social care was tackled.

Richard Smith, corporate director of adult social care and health for Kent County Council, has a track record in digital transformation.

“Social care is the scaffolding of a building, and digital tech is a great empowerment tool. The impact is instant for those who would never have otherwise had a voice,” he said.

“Big data could apply to so many things, but it should be using data to determine what people really need. We need to demystify and bring it back to what the workforce and to what citizens need.”

The event, hosted by Rethink Partners as part of their Digital Fight Club series was attended by social care leaders, lead commissioners in innovation and those involved in care technology from local authorities across the country.

Lewis Sheldrake, social care lead commissioner in innovation for Barking and Dagenham Council, said: People within councils who don’t know a great deal about care technology will talk about an advert they’ve seen on TV, maybe for a smart speaker turning the lights off or on for someone with reduced mobility.

“That’s the starting point for many people’s understanding of the role tech can play to improve lives. While consumer tech has its place in terms of entertainment, social interaction and supporting daily living, the real opportunity for Government is using the data such devices aggregate, and what they tell us about peoples’ behaviours.

“It’s this information that will help us provide much more agile social care provision at an individual level: intervene early before a crisis occurs and plan better services longer term, grounded in the information about real people’s lives.

“How we collate data from passive devices is going to be crucial as it’ll be used to determine what level of care people need, when they need it, and how it can be flexed to fit people’s personal circumstances.”

But whilst back-end digital data flow is going to be every bit as valuable as the front-end contact and support, it’s a harder sell, he added. 

When you can say ‘Here’s a device you can speak to your family or carer on, that can remind you to take your medicines on time, play your favourite Beatles tracks and raise help if you fall’, then yeah, people will get it. If you then say ‘these devices will also collect data that will help us ensure you are receiving the right care’ that shifts the conversation,” said Lewis.

“Some people will be happy, some won’t. The household activity passive sensors can monitor – door openings, sleep patterns, ambient temperature, kettle usage – will be nothing like as sensitive as the information CCTV or your neighbour’s smart doorbell accumulates every time we leave our front door, but the challenge will be to assure people that passive devices collecting data work in their interests, not against them.

“That sits on a knife-edge at times; it only takes one story about invasion of privacy or a data breach to really undermine the application of technology in the public sector.”

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