Why the Family Context project is so promising for children’s services

Published: 31 March 2021

The digital tool has the potential to provide better information on vulnerable children, meaning fewer end up in care. 

This article first appeared on the Local Digital blog

Family Context is a digital tool that enables social workers to easily find service involvement information on individuals relevant to a child. Or in the words of one social worker: We would know whom to contact right away and that person would know a lot more about [the] family”

By facilitating conversations with lead practitioners from other services, we believe the tool has the potential to provide better information to families and safeguard children. This will ensure more young people are well looked after by their families and fewer end up in care. It will also help families to view social workers as people who really understand their circumstances and who can support them.

The tool has been developed in partnership with Leeds City Council and Stockport Council, with funding from the Local Digital Fund.

Why Family Context is so promising for the future of children’s social care

1. Collaboration between local authorities to solve a national problem

Family Context emerged from a workshop with 12 local authorities to discuss improving the outcomes of vulnerable children. All 12 agreed that poor information sharing between multi-agency partnerships […] is a compounding factor that can lead to the serious harm, abuse or death of a child”. With this in mind, Family Context was developed as a multi-local authority collaboration to address a common problem.

2. It was collaboratively designed with users at the centre.

Family Context was built around social workers and their need for more information. The product is a result of extensive research and testing with social workers around the country. Each decision about the product was informed by different rounds of research with users.

Screenshot of the demo tool

During the testing phase, it was possible to:

i) shortlist the four services (schools, adult social care, housing and police) to include in the MVP

ii) select the minimum set of data fields required for each service in order to provide value, and

iii) assess the value that this minimum set of data fields brings for each service in comparison to the information users currently have.

3. Family Context puts ethics first

Data ethics has been central to the development of the tool, which includes data from four different services. This has been done not only by complying to legislation such as GDPR, but also by incorporating ethics during the design process:

  • The information is shared for the specific purpose of enabling conversations and allowing better multi-agency working during the social worker assessment.
  • The tool uses the minimum data necessary to achieve its purpose — there has been rigorous testing in place with social workers to identify the minimum data fields from each service needed in order to provide value. By doing so, it was possible to define a common data model. The advantage of this was that data source owners could share less information — they only provide fields to populate the model instead of complete data sets.
  • Feedback from families whose data is being shared with social workers — families were also part of the research as we wanted to make sure their voice was heard, and that families felt comfortable with information on their involvement with other services being shared with social workers.
  • Clear presentation of potential limitations of data — whenever information is presented to users in the tool there is clarity around what sources have been used, which periods it covers and the level of confidence. This makes social workers aware of the potential limitations of the data that is being shared so they can make appropriate decisions about how to use it.

4. Involvement of ICO, MHCLG, DCMS and iStand UK

The project has been funded by MHCLG’s Local Digital Fund and the Christie Foundation. It has included important collaborations with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which has supported the legal gateways for data sharing within the context of the tool, and iStand UK, who have been supporting and challenging the development of the Family Context data model.

5. Family Context is open source

Since its inception, Family Context has always aimed to be open source. All the work has been done collaboratively and is publicly available in the project GitHub page, where you can find:

How you can get involved

We’re always keen to continue collaborating with other local authorities and partner organisations. Please do get in touch if you have any questions or would like to find out more.

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