"We wanted to make an app that was simple and easy to use for everyone," says Harriet, "so residents can use it and support workers can use it". Harriet, a young woman with a learning disability, collaborated with Camphill Village Trust (CVT), the care provider that supports her, to develop a multi-functional social media app, CVT Connect.
Launched a year ago, CVT Connect aims to support people with learning disabilities to develop skills, confidence and safety awareness in their use of social media. Harriet worked on the app with her peers in the CVT Got It team, a group of people with learning disabilities who quality check information for accessibility. The team collaborated with CVT staff and a small technology company.
There have long been calls within the social care sector for more providers to embrace technological advances to improve efficiency at a time of austerity, as I have previously blogged on these pages.
Cost is not the only driver - although this is a perennial factor, not least after the recent spring budget - but technology can also mean faster dissemination of information and less paperwork.
Yet there has been little focus on how people supported by social care are actively included in designing such digital developments. Concern remains that our "digitally excluded" population consists predominantly of older people or people with disabilities. We outline some of these issues in a new publication exploring how adult social care can maximise the benefits of technology and how people who use services are contributing to digital designs.
Digital technology is at the heart of the NHS Five Year Forward View and the government is equally keen that local authorities embrace such innovations during a time of austerity. The words of communities and local government secretary Sajid Javid on the local government finance settlement also stressed the importance of digital innovation.
According to the Local Government Association's (LGA) vision for technology in social care, five key themes dictate how information and technology will transform the delivery of health and social care services. These include integrating services and information for children, families and adults, enabling people to interact with care services through digital channels and promoting independence and wellbeing through the use of digital services and technology. In addition, commissioning must be integrated through the improved use of information and analysis, and care professionals enabled to work from any base at any time.
The key enablers of this transformation, says the LGA, include leadership and collaboration with citizens and professionals. The LGA also stresses that it is not the technology alone that makes for success but the "buy in" and collaboration of the people using it.
This is clearly the case with the CVT Connect app used by Harriet, her peers and support staff. The technology is not only meeting a practical need, but raising aspirations and changing the culture of an organisation. Firstly, the app makes information more easily available to people, creating a safe digital environment for people to learn to use social media. This also reduces anxiety about fraud and cyberbullying, and encourages people to have a bigger say, for example, through taking part in online surveys more easily.
Also, the app offers a platform for people to have greater control over their person-centred plan, which sets out how someone's care and support is designed. It encourages digital one-page profiles, which people can update themselves, and "walls" where people can pool their views and noticeboards for current information. Local administrators oversee people's accounts, checking what is being shared through the app and support learning about how to stay safe online.
So far around 20% of the people supported by CVT are using the app, with the charity providing training devices for people to learn how to use the app before buying their own. Importantly, the app represents a culture change and a skills development issue for staff as well as people with learning disabilities. Because staff develop their own one-page profiles, the app helps people create more personal connections; app users seeing each other first and foremost as people. In addition, there is an impact on governance as CVT Connect is being used to inform decisions about how the organisation is run.
As proved by CVT, user engagement is key to the design of successful digital solutions. And technology should not be considered an add-on or after thought, but part of how care providers can improve the support and inclusion of the people they work with.
More widely, organisations could jointly design and deliver shared technological solutions, with potential savings realised through collective purchasing power. Such combined efforts to promote innovation in our sector could lead to stronger relationships with commissioners. This is vital at a time when a risk-averse approach to commissioning and a reluctance to invest in unfamiliar solutions is common.
Digital solutions are no substitute for face-to-face support, but their contribution must be considered when developing support services, not least because they offer an opportunity for disabled people to have more control over their lives.