Ten years on from Byron – are children any safer online?

“The rapid pace at which new media are evolving has left adults and children stranded either side of a generational digital divide.” (Professor Tanya Byron, 2008)

On examining the risks children face from the internet and video games, the Byron Review made 38 recommendations for the government, industry and families to work together to support children’s safety online and to reduce access to adult video games.

Ten years on, are children any safer online?

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) argues “there is still a great deal of work to be done”.

‘Failing to do enough’

The recommendations of the Byron Review were recently revisited by the NSPCC in its new report which reviewed the progress made in implementing them. Of the 38 recommendations, the report found that:

  • 16 were implemented (only 13 fully);
  • 11 were not implemented;
  • seven were partially implemented; and
  • for four recommendations, the landscape has changed too much to accurately judge.

Despite the changes in the political landscape and in technological developments, however, the NCPCC notes that the vast majority of the recommendations made in 2008 are still relevant and “urgently need to be addressed.”

Professor Byron herself stated in the foreword of the report that “much has changed over the last decade, but one thing has not: Government is failing to do enough to protect children online.”

Byron noted that, excluding the areas where the recommendations are no longer applicable, still 53% of her remaining recommendations “have either been ignored by Government or have only been partially followed through.”

In terms of the implications, social networks are left to make their own rules with no government regulation, online safety is not yet a compulsory part of the school curriculum and responsibility for child safety online falls heavily on parents who may lack understanding of latest trends, or even children who may not be equipped to make wise decisions – all findings similarly highlighted ten years ago. So what has changed?

Progress

The recommendations that were fully implemented include: tighter regulation of new forms of online advertising to children; a more consistent approach to age rating online games; and assessment of e-safety standards in schools as part of Ofsted inspections.

The UK Council for Child Internet Safety was also established as a result of the recommendations – the primary strategy objective. It has since produced various guidance documents for schools, parents and industry.

More recently, as part of the government’s Digital Charter, its forthcoming Internet Safety Strategy will introduce a social media code of practice and transparency reporting. Children are also to be given extra protection online under new data protection laws. Byron describes this as an important step but raises concern that the rules will not be directly enforceable. Moreover, the social media code is expected to be voluntary and does not include anti-grooming measures.

While a voluntary code of practice for websites was a key recommendation of the Byron Review in 2008, Byron has recently argued that “it is much too late for a voluntary code for social networks.”

Just before the NSPCC’s report, it was revealed that there had been more than 1300 grooming offences in the first six months since the Sexual Communication with a Child offence came into force, with almost two thirds of cases involving the use of Facebook, Snapchat or Instagram.

Benefits

Of course, technology has numerous benefits for children and young people. As Byron’s review highlighted, the internet and video games offer a range of opportunities for fun, communication, skill development, creativity and learning.

Digital technology can also be beneficial to children and young people who are disadvantaged. As UNICEF’s recent report – The State of the World’s Children 2017: Children in a digital world – argues:

“If leveraged in the right way and universally accessible, digital technology can be a game changer for children being left behind… connecting them to a world of opportunity and providing them with the skills they need to succeed in a digital world.”

Byron also highlighted the value technologies can have for children and young people living with disabilities that make living in the ‘offline’ world challenging.

As Byron suggested in 2008, what is needed is a balance between preserving the rights of children and young people to reap the enjoyment of the digital world and enhance their learning and development, and ensuring they (and indeed adults) are sufficiently informed to maintain safety.

Way forward

To ensure children have the same rights and security online as they have offline, the NSPCC is calling for:

  • a set of minimum standards and a statutory code of practice for online providers, underpinned by robust regulation;
  • greater transparency on data and information-sharing amongst industry; and
  • clear and transparent processes for reporting, moderating and removing content from sites, verifying children’s ages and offering support to users when needed.

To be effective, the NSPCC specify that these measures would need to be consistently applied to all sites, apps and games where children interact online.

Perhaps the government’s Internet Safety Strategy will introduce more stringent measures as highlighted by both Byron and the NSPCC which will go some way to making children safer in the digital world.

In the words of Byron, “The online world moves too fast for Government to drag its feet for another decade.”


If you enjoyed reading this, you may be interested in our previous posts on the impact of smart phones on young people’s mental health and what technology means for children’s development.

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Is technology really the answer to social isolation and loneliness?

Old man sitting on a benchBy Steven McGinty

As we head towards Christmas, the media is filled with images of families coming together and enjoying the festivities. However, the reality is that many people will not be spending the Christmas period with loved ones, and will be spending the festive season alone.

In April, Future Cities Catapult produced a report into the impact of social isolation and loneliness. They highlight that those experiencing social isolation and loneliness have an increased likelihood of developing health conditions such as dementia (1.9 times more likely) and depression (3.4 times more likely). In addition, there is a 26% increased risk of mortality.

The report also included findings from the Mormont Review, highlighting that in emergency situations social networks have a significant impact on recovery.

Individuals who are socially isolated are between two and five times more likely than those who have strong social ties to die prematurely. Social networks have a larger impact on the risk of mortality than on the risk of developing disease, in the sense it is not so much that social networks stop you from getting ill, but that they help you to recover when you get ill.

It’s this substantial impact on people lives’ – and the costs to the health service – which has led to many public bodies looking for ways to tackle social isolation and loneliness.

Technology-based interventions, in particular, are some of the most innovative approaches to addressing the issue that affects over half of all people aged 75 and over who live alone, as well as increasing numbers of young people. Below we’ve outlined some of the most interesting examples.

CogniWin

CogniWin provides support and motivation for older people to stay active and in employment by providing smart assistance and well-being guidance. It helps people to adapt cognitively with their work tasks through their interactions with a system (which collects information using an intelligent mouse and eye tracking software). A virtual Adaptive Support and Learning Assistant then provides feedback, which helps the older person adapt their working lifestyle or have the confidence to take up a part-time job or become a volunteer.

Casserole Club

Casserole Club is a social enterprise that brings together people who enjoy cooking and who often share extra portions with those who may not be able to cook for themselves. Founded by FutureGov and designed in partnership with four local authorities, the service uses its website to allow volunteers to sign up and search for diners in their area (most of which, are over 80 years old). Overall, there are 4,000 cooks nationwide, and 80% of diners highlight that they wouldn’t have much social contact without the Casserole Club.

Family in Touch (FIT) Prototype

The Family in Touch (FIT) prototype was developed by a team of Canadian researchers who noticed that elderly people in care homes and retirement communities often touched photographs in an attempt to connect with family members. Based on this, the team created a touch screen photo frame which sent a message to a relative to say that they were thinking of them. The relative was then able to record a video message, which could be viewed by the elderly person in the photo frame. It was found that elderly people appreciated the simple design and tactile user experience.

Final thoughts

These are just some of the innovative tools being used to tackle social isolation and loneliness. And although technology is not the whole solution, it can certainly provide new opportunities for projects seeking to provide friendship and support to those who feel disconnected.

Individually, we can also make a difference. Even just making a phone call to an elderly relative, sending a message to an old friend, or visiting a neighbour, can brighten up someone’s day.


The Knowledge Exchange provides information services to local authorities, public agencies, research consultancies and commercial organisations across the UK. Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team. 

Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


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Who’s afraid of the big, bad robot? Preparing the labour market for a future with AI

massive production

By Heather Cameron

Science fiction is slowly becoming science fact”. This is what the interim Chair of the government’s Science and Technology Committee said in their recently published report on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

While admitting there is still some way to go before we witness systems and robots like those portrayed in the creative arts such as Star Wars and Ex Machina, the report noted that there have been a series of recent advances across these fields that are beginning to have transformational impacts.

But just what will these impacts look like, particularly in relation to the labour market?

‘Transformational impacts’

Driverless cars and supercomputers that assist with medical diagnoses are highlighted as some of the transformational impacts of AI that have already arrived.  Others include improved automated voice recognition software and predictive text.

The increase in processing power, the wealth of data and the development of techniques such as ‘deep learning’ have all contributed to the recent progress.

However, the report also notes that such advances raise a number of social, ethical and legal questions that require consideration. These include issues about the transparency of AI decision-making as well as privacy and safety.

And while there is much excitement about the potential of AI to improve and enhance our lives, there is also widespread concern over the potential impact of increasing automation on the workplace.

Implications for employment

Fears over increased unemployment as a result of increasing automation are longstanding. The inquiry found conflicting views over the potential impact to the workforce, with some predicting a rise in unemployment, while others anticipate a transformation in the type of employment available.

It is likely that some occupations will become obsolete. Deloitte has warned that 11 million jobs across the UK economy are at high risk of being automated by 2036, with the retail and transport sectors most vulnerable. The research also indicated that almost 750,000 net jobs had been lost in manufacturing since the turn of the millennium, while the wholesale and retail sector saw net job losses of 338,000.

However, it was noted that millions of new roles had also been created in order to meet changing demand. So perhaps it is adaptation within the workforce that is needed.

Indeed, the Committee’s report highlights a need to focus on delivering the skills needed for people to adapt and thrive as new technology continues to emerge. It has been argued elsewhere that cognitive and social and behavioural skills should be made a priority in any skills strategy for the 21st century to “make workers more resilient to technology-driven labor market shocks like automation.”

And of course some sectors may be more susceptible than others.

Recent research by McKinsey suggests that the impact of automation differs dramatically across sectors and activities. It found that:

While automation will eliminate very few occupations entirely in the next decade, it will affect portions of almost all jobs to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the type of work they entail. Automation, now going beyond routine manufacturing activities, has the potential, as least with regard to its technical feasibility, to transform sectors such as healthcare and finance, which involve a substantial share of knowledge work.”

Another common theme highlighted throughout the inquiry was that robotics and AI could increase productivity and efficiency. One recent study estimated that ‘£1.24bn in automation investment could raise the overall value added by the manufacturing sector to the UK economy by £60.5bn over the next decade’.

Future

There are clearly many debates about the potential impact of robots and AI, but it is not yet clear what the actual impact of advances in these fields will be on the labour market.

What is clear is that there is a need for skills to be developed for a world where AI is more prevalent.

But as the inquiry highlighted, the government doesn’t yet have a strategy for developing these new skills or responding to the social and ethical issues it poses. The report therefore recommends that “the government must commit to addressing the digital skills crisis through a Digital Strategy, published without delay.”

Perhaps the future will be similar to the past, as written evidence to the inquiry suggests:

During the industrial revolution, mechanisation did not change long-run equilibrium employment because new jobs emerged which were unimaginable at that time. Similarly, jobs lost to automation today might be replaced by jobs we cannot yet imagine.


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The pros and cons of the gig economy

By Heather Cameron

The ‘gig economy’, also described as the ‘sharing economy’, ‘collaborative economy’ or ‘on-demand economy’, has grown rapidly in the UK, a trend that is predicted to continue amid post-Brexit uncertainty.

A new study from the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that work in the gig economy is even more widespread than official data suggest, with 20-30% of people in the US and UK working independently. And while the report suggests the majority of these workers are participating in the gig economy by choice, a sizable minority are there reluctantly.

So what exactly is the gig economy and what are its benefits and drawbacks?

What is the gig economy?

The gig economy comprises enterprises such as Uber, the driver hire app, Airbnb, the accommodation-sharing platform, and Deliveroo, the online food delivery company. These enterprises enable people to use digital platforms to buy services from, and sell services to, each other.

A recent PwC study identified five key sectors within the gig economy:

  • peer-to-peer accommodation
  • peer-to-peer transportation
  • on-demand household services
  • on-demand professional services
  • collaborative finance

People that work in the gig economy, as described in the McKinsey report, are independent workers, rather than employees. Three key features of these workers have been identified:

  • a high degree of autonomy
  • payment by task, assignment, or sales
  • short-term relationship between the worker and the customer

Growth

The UK has seen higher growth in the gig economy than the rest of Europe, partly due to the recent establishment of London as a global financial technology (FinTech) hub. Transactions reached £7.4bn in 2015, almost double the previous year.

The number of jobs in the online gig economy advertised by UK employers increased by 14% between May and September, according to the Online Labour Index. This is around double the 7.5% rise elsewhere in Europe, and 6% in the US.

The McKinsey research estimates that there are up to 162 million independent workers in the US and Europe combined. The number of people classified as self-employed in the UK has grown by 47% since 2000, while the number of employed has risen by just 13% over the same period.

Pros

Supporters of the gig economy argue that it enables more people to participate in the labour market by providing flexible working, provides opportunities for the unemployed and could increase productivity.

Indeed, flexible working has proven very popular among the working population as more seek to achieve the perfect work-life balance. Those surveyed for the McKinsey report who chose independent work, reported greater satisfaction with their lives than traditional workers. They were more engaged in their work, and relished the chance to be their own boss and have more control over their hours. Even those working independently out of necessity reported being happier with the flexibility and content of the work they do, although they were less satisfied with their level of income and income security.

Both consumers and organisations can benefit through greater availability and accessibility of services and improved matching that better fulfils their needs.

And there is also the benefit of minimal cost. Digital business models have lower transaction costs for consumers, and organisations can keep costs down by using independent service providers only when they need them.

Nevertheless, challenges exist.

Cons

While there are more people in work than ever before, due in large part to the increase in self-employment, and despite the high levels of satisfaction among independent workers overall, there are concerns over job insecurity and low income.

Those working in the gig economy do not enjoy the same rights and protections as employed workers, such as health benefits, overtime pay and sick leave pay.

The TUC has highlighted that the increase in self-employment has not been driven by a boom in entrepreneurship but, instead, workers are increasingly forced by employers to accept precarious employment with low pay.

Deliveroo has recently come under fire from workers over their employment practices in relation to the minimum wage. And Uber is involved in an employment tribunal where drivers have contested their status as self-employed, suggesting they should be entitled to a range of benefits such as pension contributions as well as holiday and sick pay.

In a bid to address concerns about the lack of rights held by people working in the gig economy, Theresa May has recently appointed a former adviser of Tony Blair to head a review into employment rights across the new economy.

But this will be no easy feat, as the rapid development of the gig economy poses significant challenges for policy makers and regulators to keep up.

Final thoughts

As the McKinsey report argues, “expanding economic opportunities and income security policies for this group should be a priority”. Hopefully the review of employment rights will mark the first step in the right direction.


If you enjoyed reading this, you may also be interested in our previous blog on ‘the self-employment boom.

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The myth of the digital native? Young people, education and digital participation in Scotland

Digital participation has been high on Scotland’s political agenda of late. Connectivity featured as a key pledge during the SNP spring conference in March. Meanwhile, both Scotland’s Digital Participation Charter and the UK government digital strategy are looking to engage those people who don’t have access to, or who do not feel confident using, technology.

Increasingly, the focus is on young people, many of whom do not remember life without internet access or mobile phones. The term being used for such young consumers of technology is “digital natives” – a digitally proficient generation which is more reliant on digital technology than older generations.

However, while in some areas of Scotland more than 80% of young people now have access to a tablet or a smartphone, their depiction as a “digital generation” may not be as accurate as first thought.

Digital competence isn’t inevitable

Some academics have challenged the notion of a “digital native”, observing that children only become digitally active if they are exposed to digital media from a young age. While a lot of research has been conducted around the impact of digital technology on those who have access, for example understanding how it effects family dynamics or health and wellbeing, less is known about the impact of not having exposure to digital technology.

This is something which needs to be explored further, and highlights that the term “universal digital native” is misleading. For example, in many areas of Scotland 17% of the population have no internet access.

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Image by Intel Free Press via Creative Commons

School-based initiatives to improve digital exposure and digital literacy

Research into digitally excluded children emphasises the important role of education on children’s digital development. School could potentially be the only opportunity for some children to receive guided exposure to the digital world, highlighting the importance of integrating digital literacy into the wider curriculum.

Individual schools have their own schemes to promote digital literacy. However, some barriers are holding children back from harnessing their potential, including:

  • allotted Information and Communications Technology (ICT) slots
  • teachers who are reluctant to teach extensively with ICT because of gaps in their own digital skills
  • concerns about exposing children to potentially harmful material.

Secondary schools in Inverclyde have trialled a ‘bring your own device’ scheme, where children use their own digital devices in lessons. Initially, there were concerns about the potential exclusion of those children who did not have their own computing devices, and about personal information being transferred across shared school networks. However, steps were taken to ensure a stock of school devices were available for those children who were unable to bring a device, that networks were secure, and that strict rules regarding the use of the technology were enforced.

Children were encouraged to work in pairs or groups to help with communication, partnership working and sharing of knowledge, which also reduced the number of personal devices in use. The scheme is still in its infancy, but already it has enabled digital technologies to be incorporated into many aspects of the Curriculum for Excellence, including: internet research, app design, online learning games and tools, photography and recording of voice notes.

UK- wide rollout of coding scheme

At a UK level, children in year 7 in England and Wales, S1 in Scotland and year 8 in Northern Ireland (aged 12) are being given the opportunity to learn how to code through a scheme rolled out by the BBC in partnership with 29 other key organisations, including Microsoft, Samsung and Barclays. The BBC Micro: Bit initiative provides children with a pocket sized computer which they can code to bring digital ideas to life. The computers are compatible with other devices, such as the Raspberry Pi, and so can be used as a springboard to more complex coding and computer programming.

The computer provision is supported by online learning resources, which teach coding techniques and give ideas about the sort of actions children can code their Micro: Bit to complete. It’s hoped that the initiative will inspire more young people to study computer science at degree level.

Implications of the digital native for education

It is clear that the education system needs to adapt to incorporate digital practice into everyday teaching. However, this has generated some debate surrounding the implications for education of the ‘digital native’ concept: how can you teach a child if they are (or are perceived to be) more proficient than their teacher? How do you integrate new technology into teaching if the teacher and pupil are learning about it at the same time?

However, failure to tackle the issues of integrating “digital” successfully into the curriculum, and digital exclusion in schools and at home could also have serious implications. If a significant portion of the next generation is digitally excluded this potentially puts them at a significant disadvantage in terms of employment and further education.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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Air quality monitoring: a role for citizen science?

Car exhaust

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), air pollution causes three million deaths each year, making it a bigger killer than the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and malaria combined. But while the number of malaria deaths globally has been halved since 2000, and HIV mortality has fallen 35% since 2005, the number of premature deaths due to air pollution is forecast to rise to more than six million by 2050.

In the UK, around 40,000 people are estimated to die each year due to respiratory and cardiovascular conditions caused by exposure to toxic substances in the air. The associated healthcare costs are in the tens of millions of pounds.

Increasing our understanding of air pollution’s impact

The ways in which air pollution statistics are reported and presented can be confusing.  As a result, many people do not always make the links between poor air quality and ill health.

Earlier this year, the Royal Society of Physicians’ (RSP) landmark report highlighting the impact of air pollution in the UK made a number of recommendations for improvement, including increased understanding of the health impacts of air pollution and better monitoring:

“We need better, more accurate and wider-ranging monitoring programmes so that we can track population-level exposure to air pollution. We also need to develop adaptable monitoring techniques to measure emerging new pollutants, and known pollutants that occur below current concentration limits. We must develop practical technology – such as wearable ‘smart’ monitors – that empower individuals to check their exposure and take action to protect their health.”

The pros and cons of compact air monitoring devices

A recent podcast from the United States National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) looked at the potential and limitations of next generation air monitoring devices. The programme underlined that the low-cost devices are a long way from the air quality monitoring stations used by government agencies that have to meet rigorous quality requirements and are operated by skilled technicians.

Many of the emerging devices have not been fully tested. For example, it’s not clear how they will react under extreme temperatures. In addition, it’s important for the operators of low-cost monitoring devices to have a statistical plan for collecting and sharing data, and to be able to interpret the numbers.

At the same time, smart technologies are still in their infancy, and there are some concerns that “the internet of things” may actually contribute to environmental pollution.

However, the NIEHS podcast observed that the compact air monitoring devices are useful for comparing levels of pollution in different locations, and they also have educational value in giving students first-hand experience of monitoring their environment.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency is working with developers of the new technologies to ensure that they meet required standards, and has also developed a toolbox for citizen scientists to provide information and guidance on new low-cost compact technologies for measuring air quality.

The Smart Citizen Kit

One example of these next generation gadgets is the Smart Citizen Kit, a compact monitoring device that measures the levels of air pollution, noise pollution and humidity in the vicinity of a home, school or office. The small box can be placed near a window and its sensors gather and submit data to a website that shares and compares data elsewhere, all in real time.

In 2014, The Waag Society – a Dutch institute for art science and technology – partnered with the Smart Citizen platform to conduct a pilot project using the Smart Citizen Kit in Amsterdam.

73 kits were installed at locations around the city, and participants were provided with helpdesk support during the trial. The project highlighted a number of operational and technical issues associated with the kits. Some of the equipment failed to work correctly, and there were problems in comparing data from different locations. While there is room for further development, the project’s success in engaging citizens to measure air pollution is a strong indicator that many people are keen to be directly involved in monitoring their own environment.

Air patrols

Closer to home, another innovative air quality monitoring device has taken flight. In March 2016, pigeons in London were fitted with lightweight sensors to monitor levels of nitrogen dioxide and ozone in the city. The air quality recorded by the sensors was sent to followers of the @PigeonAir Twitter account. The idea was the winning entry in a competition organised for the London Design Festival, and aimed to highlight the dangers of air pollution. Londoners are now being invited to wear the air quality monitoring devices to help build a real-time map of pollution across the city.

Final thoughts

In 2011, a parliamentary committee called for a public awareness campaign to drive air quality up the political agenda and inform people about the positive action they could take to reduce emissions and their exposure to these.  It’s increasingly likely that emerging smart technologies for measuring air quality may have an important role to play in raising public awareness about the insidious dangers of air pollution.


If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on environmental issues:

Coming up for air: tackling the toxic pollution in our cities

The positive paybacks of clearing the airThe positive paybacks of clearing the air

World Health Organization Air quality release: UK focus

An all-round approach: could the circular economy help the world turn the corner on climate change?

Biodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our livesBiodiversity in the UK – it’s not just about habitat protection but how we live our lives

Digital technology in social work practice

Using social media in social work practice was the topic of conversation at a recent conference, held at the University of Stirling. With a delegate list including academics, researchers, practitioners and representatives from the public and private sectors the conversation topics were broad and wide ranging from how to use social media, what to avoid doing and how to integrate digital technologies and systems into everyday practice for social workers.

social media infographic photoPartnerships to deliver digital solutions

In March last year we told you about the partnership between a local authority and Idox who teamed up to deliver a digital case management tool to support the council social workers in their day to day practice. The ideas that were promoted during the conference not only emphasises the innovative nature of that partnership when it was developed, but also the continuing possibilities to pursue innovative digital solutions within local government to allow Idox to continue deliver efficient and positive outcomes for service users.

Avoiding social media pitfalls

Aside from poor infrastructure, like a lack of wifi, and seemingly impenetrable work computer firewalls, both of which came up regularly in discussions, one of the main reasons social workers did not use social media was fear, uncertainty and worry of the repercussions should something be posted or liked which was deemed inappropriate.

Rachel Wardell, the director of Services at Warwickshire council gave a talk on utilising Twitter in an appropriate way and outlined the “7 stages of Twitter” for new and advanced users. She suggested that Twitter was actually a great way for social workers, teams and managers to make connections and share best practice across the profession. She discussed how links initially forged on twitter by a follow or the sharing of an article developed into partnerships and trips to visit areas of best practice to observe and learn from fellow professionals.picjumbo.com_HNCK1814

However for many social workers, and their management teams, social media use can still be problematic, with the BBC reporting earlier in the year that there had been a rise in the number of council workers being punished for misconduct relating to social media. For social work teams the pressures and implications are even more significant. In discussion with Birmingham University’s Dr Tarsem Singh Cooner some of the delegates highlighted examples of colleagues who had been accused of bringing the profession into disrepute and some extreme instances where they had been removed from cases at the request of service users who had seen a post on their social media account which was not secured with privacy settings.

While most were keen to stress that these were individual mistakes and misjudgements there was still anxiety about the increasingly blurred boundaries between public and private, the importance of relationship building and personal experience for social workers interacting with service users, but the necessity to remain professional. The phrase ‘social workers are human too’ was used regularly by those advocating the use of social media and that councils should use a level of common sense and discretion when dealing with incidents involving staff and social media. However, the general consensus appeared to be that social media should be treated with caution:

  • use a separate work and personal account
  • use an alias
  • employ maximum privacy settings
  • don’t post anything that could potentially bring the profession or your conduct into disrepute
An example (from my own Twitter) of how Twitter can be used to document conferences and interact with professionals

An example (from my own Twitter) of how Twitter can be used to document conferences and interact with professionals

Making social work ‘appier

One of the big developments which has become increasingly popular as a tool to engage social work in digital technology is the creation of apps. Many of the conference discussions were on the benefits of using an app, how they can be utilised fully in their roles as training tools and information providers or how they can be used to encourage participation and communication in aspects such as feedback.

Anne Campbell from Queens University Belfast discussed the development of a series of information-based apps which focused on child development. Another app covered the knowledge of social workers and social care teams of drug and alcohol in substance misuse cases, including symptoms, street names for abused substances and the studies which use examples of substance misuse in social work and adult and child protection cases. She discussed the importance of using practitioners and service users to develop the app, to ensure it was fit for purpose and easy to use. She also highlighted the potential for her apps, which currently operate in a Northern Irish context, to be developed and diversified to account for differences in policy in Scotland, the Republic of Ireland and England and Wales.

Screenshot images of the apps

Screenshot images of the apps

There is a potential for software development in the future which would see more secure data files more easily accessible via personalised secure apps and document drop apps, which could be shared across a number of sectors, including health, social care and education. Delivering the digital infrastructure platforms to develop and successfully run integrated systems and sharing platforms such as these would require huge investment from local authorities, and would potentially provide the opportunity to work in conjunction with specialists, such as Idox, to develop software which is supportive, flexible and fit for purpose.

Apps

Iphone apps. Image by Daniel Go via Creative Commons

Using social media to create connections

The final part of the afternoon was characterised by case study style discussions, where speakers presented their own experiences, both positive and negative of using social media and stressed the importance of social media as a way to create connections. The connections spoken about included connections between practitioners, to create a more extensive community of best practice within the social work profession, connections between service users and social workers, many of whom feel more comfortable communicating via social media, and finally creating connections between service users to help them provide support to each other. This was something specifically highlighted by the team from Lothian Villas in East Lothian.

Lothian Villas have been using a closed, invite only Facebook group as a forum to interact with young people staying with them during a period in residential care. Members can post on the page, while others respond giving advice and reminiscing, much like a traditional family would do. That, according to Ewan McKay, is vital for allowing children who have come from care to build and maintain relationships and have happy memories of their childhood which can go on to shape how they behave as adults in the future. They can also then pass their memories and advice onto the children who are coming through the system after them.

Other groups spoke about the use of document sharing sites, digital presentation sites and networking sites like LinkedIn to create and document continuing professional development (CPD), a core part of social workers’ continuing improvement and the maintenance of standards.

 

The conference highlighted the massive steps forward which have been taken and the desire for drive and innovation in digital infrastructure to take public services, and their delivery onto digital platforms. This would allow for greater connectivity between professions such as social work and other service providers in health and education resulting in more efficient services, producing better outcomes for service users. Using digital platforms well, including apps, sharing websites and personal social networking sites such as Twitter will allow practitioners and local authorities to ‘join up’ services to promote more holistic, person-centred care at a local level while allowing professionals to build a network of best practice and document their own CPD. Digital media in social work practice could potentially be a key enabler in improving practice and generating positive outcomes for service users.


Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

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London’s digital skills shortage: a priority for the new Mayor

By Steven McGinty

London’s tech industry has become one of the key drivers of growth in the capital. Within the first  nine months of 2015 the industry raised approximately £1.1 billion; a substantial increase on the £911 million raised throughout 2014. Over the next 10 years, Oxford Economics research expects the sector to grow at a rate of 5.1% per year and to generate an extra £12 billion of economic activity. It’s predicted that this will create an additional 46,000 digital jobs.

However, the growth in London’s tech industry is not guaranteed. Although current London Mayor Boris Johnson claims there are more professional developers in London than in San Francisco’s Silicon Valley, a recent CBI/KPMG London Business Survey indicates that there is still a shortage of skilled professionals.

Jess Tyrrell, Associate Director for the Centre for London and Director of the Connecting Tech City Programme, explains that “the skills shortage has grown from an ‘issue’ to a ‘crisis”. She warns that unless London can develop its talent pipeline, its digital potential may never be realised.

London Mayoral election

With so much at stake, it’s not surprising that the tech industry has become an issue in London’s mayoral election. One of the front runners, Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, has promised that he’ll appoint a chief digital officer (CDO) to manage the city’s data and introduce a £1m “Mayor’s Tech Challenge” to encourage innovation. He has also voiced concerns at losing young tech professionals because of the cost of housing.

Labour MP Sadiq Khan (reported by YouGov to be currently leading the race) recently met with leaders of the industry body Tech UK. The organisation noted that Mr Khan was particularly interested in tackling the skills shortage and looking at how young Londoners could be better represented in the tech industry.

The Mayoral Manifesto for the Digital Economy

At the end of last year, the London Assembly Economy Committee published a manifesto identifying the main three challenges that the Mayor should seek to address. These were:

  • poor broadband connectivity for London businesses
  • a lack of gender and socio-economic diversity in the digital labour market
  • the significant shortage of skilled workers

The first challenge is self-evident. For a digital economy to be successful, it must be built on fast, reliable, access to broadband. Perhaps more interesting is the relationship between improving diversity and the skills shortage. Most notably, there is a strong argument that encouraging non-traditional groups – i.e. those who are not white, male and middle class – will help reduce the skills shortage.

Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of the lastminute.com (and an advisor to the UK government on rolling out broadband and digital services) is in favour of increasing diversity and believes that unemployed women should be trained to help address this skills crisis. In an article for the Financial Times, she states that:

Any company – or, more boldy, country – that dramatically improves its tech diversity will have enormous competitive advantage.

The Committee’s manifesto also makes a number of recommendations for the new Mayor. For example, it suggests that tech apprenticeships should be designed to give disadvantaged Londoners the best possible training, and that the Mayor could endorse the industry-led TechTalent Charter, which aims to increase gender diversity in the tech industry.

London’s Digital Future: The Mayoral Tech Manifesto 2016

In January, Tech UK, the Centre for London, and the Tech London advocates released their manifesto for the future London Mayor. Ben Rogers, Director of the Centre for London, states that:

The responsibility of the next Mayor is to ensure that London gets the best of the digital revolution.

Like the London Assembly’s report, the Tech Manifesto focuses on the current skills shortage, noting that 93% of tech firms believe the skills gap is having a direct negative impact on their business.

The manifesto argues that London must do more to mend its fractured talent pipeline. One suggestion put forward is to establish a Digital Apprenticeship Task Force within the first 100 days of the new Mayor’s term of office. Its purpose would be to improve the quality and quantity of higher and degree-level apprenticeships. The next Mayor, say the authors of the manifesto, should work with the tech sector to ensure that the apprenticeships are fit-for-purpose, and should be particularly focused on areas where demand for skills is greatest.

With the EU referendum on the horizon, it’s also interesting to note the emphasis on tech companies having the freedom to recruit talent from across the globe. The manifesto recommends that the next Mayor should be an advocate for providing clear routes for migrant workers under the Tier 2 skilled worker visa, and oppose any restrictions. It also suggests that the Mayor should work with London universities to investigate the possibility of a trial of the Post-Study Work Visa for occupations where there is a clear skills shortage.

Final thoughts

The shortage of tech skills is a global problem. However, it’s a challenge that London must address if its digital economy is to avoid a slowdown. A key priority for the next Mayor of London should be to develop the tech industry’s talent pipeline. In practical terms, this is likely to involve protecting the industry’s access to skilled migrant workers, to ensure London’s growth in the short term, alongside investing in London’s diverse population and encouraging the best and the brightest to seek out exciting tech careers.


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Further reading: if you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our other articles on the digital sector.

Q&A with Mark Evans: “To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas”

Markfor posters

Mark Evans is the Director and Professor of Governance at the Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis at the University of Canberra, Australia. In this interview with the Knowledge Exchange, Mark talks about how his research is used in policy development.

How can policy makers/practitioners benefit from developing their knowledge and use of evidence?

The more I’ve got involved in the practice of decision making and developing policies, the more I’ve seen the value of evidence. To make evidence effective you have to win the war of ideas. Politicians have their own sources of evidence – internal policy, preferred sources, media etc. – and ministers are enveloped by a whole range of sources. Good evidence has to find a way of being heard and cutting through this.

Civil servants are very skilled in committees and running processes and programmes effectively. They are good at technical solutions and responses, but not adaptive developmental issues, which require time. Their ability to engage and get to the hardest to reach groups within policy, was one of the key findings of our study. How do you cost programmes which take a long time and investment, and target groups experiencing significant marginalisation?

When people talk to you about evidence, research or knowledge, what do they most frequently raise as issues?

Real time evidence – which we can only do through open data. In Australia this is difficult as we don’t have national datasets to enable large scale analysis or comparison. The UK is far ahead of us in terms of data and its use in evidence. In the UK there is no shortage of data, but it needs to be more dynamic, whereas in Australia it’s not sufficient. Resources such as Euromonitor don’t exist in Australia, so we can’t compare or contrast issues or monitor impact. Spatial modelling is very influential due to this lack of data – simulated models for different areas are necessary as we don’t have the real data.

What are the mistakes people make when it comes to developing knowledge, things which you really need to avoid?

Not understanding the political dynamics leads to failure. Not understanding that knowledge is power, and assuming that what makes good evidence is what makes good understanding, are big traps to fall into. Just because you develop good evidence doesn’t mean it will be accepted.

The most important first step is agreement around values and principles. The classic example in Australia would be the original agreement on the child support scheme:  ‘absent fathers should contribute’ was the fundamental principle and getting that agreement led to the introduction of the scheme.

What are the main issues facing policy makers in the next 5 years? What evidence will they need?

This may be peculiar to Australia, but the personalisation of politics and policies, is now impacting. The ‘Obama technologies’ approach of targeting messages to voters and the targeting of resources to particular groups, is on the rise, so policy is becoming individually relevant. If we know what people want, we can then move resources to target their needs. The evidence to help policy makers to do this successfully (i.e. generally the use of new technologies, big data, social media, getting real time data on preferences) is going to grow in importance and be in demand.

Key policy issues are ageing, the cost of care and pensions, funding the social security gaps and climate change. There is also a rise in the development of preventative health and generally the funding of higher education.

How do you think people will be carrying out evidence, research and knowledge development in five years’ time?

Technology, everyone always says technology! Normally there is a lag between the technology and its realisation in public policy – this was certainly the case up until recently.

Largely because there is an association between technology and productivity, there is an inverse relationship between use the use of consultants and productivity. There is only a productivity gain in the public sector in the digitisation of services and the consolidation of the use of technologies.

There is a presumption of localism in policy, but actually technology development is leading to more centralisation. This can be a positive thing for the availability and reliability of data, but negative for understanding very local issues.

If you had a ‘best-kept secret’ about research, evidence and knowledge, what would you recommend, and why?

An approach which is useful in thinking about the context of evidence and policymaking is to ask “I am in my ‘cockpit’ (desk, computer, books, advisors, people I know), but what is in your cockpit?” We’ve found that the more experienced policy officers all had mentors, all had experts, they knew about data, and could do policy relatively quickly. This contrasted with younger policy makers (the ‘Wikipedia policy makers’). Fast-track policy making is being done (ministers deciding and the policy maker sent off to write the evidence base) but if their ‘cockpit’ isn’t complete then the policy making can have holes.

Finally, what led you to a role developing knowledge institutions and focusing on research and evidence development? 

In 1999,  I established the international development unit at York, looking at post-war recovery study. It was just before Afghanistan and Iraq so we became the ‘go to’ place for it, and started to look at the interface between evidence and politics. Many were disregarding the evidence – it’s really all about jobs and poverty; people move towards radicalisation when they have no hope no future.

I came to Australia for the better relationship between government and academia, through the National School of Government.  I have been able to do things in Australia that I wouldn’t have been able to do in UK, bringing together theory and practice. The UK is good at collaboration, and I have taken that to Australia aiming to be the ‘collaborator of first resort’.


You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkEvansACT and you can follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Read some of our other blogs on the use of evidence in public policy: