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Social services must adapt to fit changing societies—can AI and blockchain help?

Portrait of a senior woman relaxing on the sofa

Social services are about people helping people. But coordinating efforts among the different experts who administer care can be difficult. And this can lead to frustration for the people they’re trying to help. As our populations get older, and we have to manage more long-term health conditions and new issues like loneliness and social exclusion, we must look for new ways of working.

In the latest episode of our Government podcast series, I invited some of my colleagues to share their thoughts on how emerging technology like AI, the Internet of Things (IoT), and blockchain can help connect aspects of social services, resulting in a better experience for workers and the people they serve.

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Data privacy above all else

Privacy should be the first topic in any discussion about sharing medical data. Laws like the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union require organizations to protect personal data. And because of that, progress on sharing data between parties—and especially between jurisdictions—has been slow.

On the podcast, Andrew Hawkins—a senior director at Microsoft for local and regional government across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa—told me that maintaining trust in these quickly changing systems depends on transparency. He says, “Citizens need to have the ability to know how their data is being used and that caregivers or emergency technicians are working according to a specific plan.” Without that trust, these social services programs will never get off the ground.

Blockchain—much more than bitcoin

Blockchain is familiar to most people as the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. But you can also think of it as a shared, highly secure digital record. Anybody who has access can add a block of data, but once a new block is added to the chain, nobody can remove or change it. In a social services scenario, this could serve as a way for multiple parties involved in a person’s care to share information and see what care has been administered in the past.

The first block in a person’s chain would contain basic information—like name, date of birth, long-term medical conditions, and so on. Subsequent blocks could contain changes to that data, but the original blocks would remain as a historical record. Then, each time the patient receives treatment, gets a prescription, or sees a professional, a new block is added. Instead of hospitals, municipalities, specialist health providers, addiction-treatment facilities, and other organizations keeping their own records, everyone is working with the same set of case notes—so past mistakes don’t get repeated and the patient gets a better standard of care.

Insights surfaced with AI

Sharing data between organizations—provided the proper privacy regulations are respected—should lead to better outcomes. And with AI, social care workers could soon have a helping hand to provide new insight into problems.

By putting intelligent technology to work on the data, caseworkers can quickly build up a full picture of a patient from a complex history of case notes. Andy Pitman, who works with health services organizations across local and regional governments, told me that AI can also help people reduce the amount of routine work they do by reducing duplication and errors—like ensuring one prescription doesn’t overlap with another—or by flagging potentially fraudulent claims.

You can listen to the full podcast here: Improved Social Services Through Technology.  And to see all the other podcast episodes visit our Gov Pod homepage.