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Three Ways Big Data Can Reshape Social Programs

Data has been called the new currency, even the new oil, but it has rarely been used to inform the field of social sciences. There are numerous barriers to using data in the social science arena, including the disparate ways that information is collected among agencies, as well as the challenges in making sense of the amount of data that is available. Precision analytics could remove such barriers because it takes advantage of machine learning, which can utilize text, stories, photos, social media and more to support real-world decision-making on a case-by-case, situation-by-situation basis. With more “precision,” it is possible to determine whether different sub populations respond differently to specific components of a social program.

Here are just three ways that precision analytics could reshape social programs:

1. Data Sharing

Social services programs tend to be more program centric then individual centric. Data can help to connect the dots between many different services, thereby helping individuals for the long-term rather than merely getting them through a difficult period in their lives.

For example, in Washington D.C. the Department of Human Services’ Economic Security Administration (ESA) is overhauling its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program to customize services based on the individual’s needs. By asking a series of questions to assess the situation, they are able to place the client into one of four segments and identify other services they might need to get back on their feet whether that be job training, substance abuse treatment or help with child care. ESA can then connect clients with sister agencies that can address particular issues. By sharing information and working together, a more specific plan can be developed for that individual.

2. Proactive Intervention

Precision analytics can also be used to help identify risks to vulnerable populations in order to take proactive steps to deal with the problem.

For example, some cities have used open data portals that link various transactional records to identify areas that are likely to see higher than normal foreclosure rates and alert foreclosure prevention counselors. Counselors can then reach out to specific housing units and their occupants based on risk models found from mining the data, and they can also use that information to fight predatory lending practices. (Coulton, Schramm, & Hirsh, 2010).

3. Funding Social Programs

More often than not, decisions as to whether programs get funded are now being based on metrics. In order to get budgets approved, it is imperative to use data to convince lawmakers and foundations that a program is effective. This is going to require a revamp of the way that social workers are trained and it is also going to necessitate the recruitment of data scientists to the social work field. Masters and doctoral programs in social science should also start to incorporate special training in data science. This will attract new talent to the profession who are tech savvy but also want to make a positive impact in the world. This new breed of social worker will be instrumental in shaping the way that programs are administered and funded in the future.

In summary, precision analytics can be used to help change the trajectory of people’s lives. However, there needs to be a greater emphasis on helping non-profits and government agencies gain access to data and the insights that it can provide., a technology start-up, is on a mission to do just that. They want to democratize data and unlock the value by making it universally available to non-profits, universities and people around the world. In order to successfully support those most in need in becoming healthy and self-sufficient, organizations must take advantage of all the tools available and data analytics is one such untapped resource.



Harnessing Data for Social Good – American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare

Rethinking Human Services Deliver – Deloitte University Press

Predictive Analytics in Human Services – The Academy for Professional Excellence

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