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CIO interview: Jason Caplin, chief digital officer, Barnardo's

Chief digital officer Jason Caplin is at the helm of the charity’s plans to create a shared data platform, aiming to improve social care services for children

Children’s charity Barnardo’s is working on a data transformation programme with a collaborative analytics platform at its heart, aimed at transforming the provision of social care services across the UK.

Barnardo’s, a 150-year-old organisation, looks after 240,000 children a year, and has been operating at that scale for several years. The amount of data on those children that it holds by law is “absolutely massive,” says Jason Caplin, the charity’s first chief digital officer (CDO), who was appointed in August 2016 to explore the opportunities data can bring to the charity. 

To provide statutory services for children that can no longer be afforded by the government, Barnardo’s has around a thousand contracts with local authorities, the NHS, central public sector bodies and other care providers around the country.  

Data plays a crucial role in this operation due to the need to measure whether it has achieved the contractual delivery requirements from its various service commissioners, but the current set-up is no longer enough. 

“Most of the time of the data specialists here is spent focusing on the reports that they need to provide to the commissioners. They aren't able to look at outputs and outcomes of the services that we are delivering for children – which is a fundamental challenge to the future of social care,” Caplin tells Computer Weekly. 

While some current initiatives within the program are “very prosaic”, such as data cleansing, Caplin points out that a lot of it is also about developing a data model that can then be shared with its partners across the children’s social care sector. 

“Some of our work is about engaging with specialist software providers to be able to transfer data between previously closed systems in a way that could potentially open up a shared data landscape for children in social care,” says Caplin. 

“That’s really scary, but really exciting and something that we’ve always shied away from as a country,” he says.

Sharing information

The challenge is scary, mainly because the data that Barnardo’s holds is very sensitive. Caplin says local government and associated care partners have historically been very bad about sharing information in a way that was either resilient or sustainable. 

While there are some examples of data sharing in the children’s sector between the NHS, local authorities and some providers of social care, the executive points out that these have been done in isolation and currently there’s no shared standard.  

“We know the shared data platform is the only approach that will work in the future. Because we are a national charity and we can see these things at scale, we recognise that going forward separately won’t provide the outcomes that children need,” says Caplin. 

“And we only know that now because of the power of the technology and data that is in our hands.”   

Creating a joined-up social care platform

Over the last few months, Barnardo’s has been going through a “discovery journey” around additional insights that could be obtained from its data that could in turn generate operational and cost efficiencies to its service commissioners. According to Caplin, only doing the basics around data analytics meant the introduction of a vicious circle that has so far hampered innovation. 

“It is a situation in which the providers of services to local authorities like ourselves are only able to provide the services that providers force them to do, rather than the services that they know they could be providing – that’s because the only data that they have time to report on is data on the services that they are already providing,” he says. 

“The caveat here is it’s entirely possible that services that Barnardo’s is providing today, which the commissioners are asking us to provide, are exactly right. It’s also entirely possible that we’re missing a few tricks and we have finally faced up to that fact and I think it’s time that the commissioners did, too,” says Caplin. 

“For many years, we have had to provide what the commissioner has asked us to do and they expect us to provide a certain amount of data in a certain format. But because they’re holding us to do just what is required at the moment, we don’t have a two-way relationship around data.” 

The data transformation project seeks to change the nature of that relationship between service commissioners and Barnardo’s as well as other service providers so that ultimately, clients won’t ask providers what they think is right, but design services together. Above all, the model is aimed at improving the efficiency of social care services provision to children. 

“We need to come to an agreement with local authorities and a legal foothold from where we are able to put children at the centre of their data and allow them to authorise providers in a trusted landscape to share bits of the data with each other,” says Caplin. 

“That in itself is such a challenge because there is nothing more sensitive than children’s data and vulnerable children within that set. So we absolutely have to make sure that we get the rules and the structures and the agreements and the legislation correct before we do this. But if we do, then the possibilities are amazing as we can have a holistic and joined up package of social care,” he says. 

According to Caplin, the children Barnardo’s works with might see up to ten different social care providers in the UK within a year, meaning there is currently the same amount of versions of truth about that child in various systems, which in turn makes it difficult to provide them with the help they need. 

“If we could join those data sets up, even at an aggregate level and in simple ways, we will be able to start sharing a single version of the truth about a child and their care package – this would allow more possibilities in terms of social mobility, safety, security or anything they need to progress from of the care or support set up that they’re getting,” he says. 

Overcoming uncertainty

The realisation that Barnardo’s needed to deal with data in a more effective manner now is directly related to the fact that it has been able to be transparent about data internally, says Caplin. The CDO also stresses that this movement within the charity is also related to developments around data standards and an improvement in the cost of examining information. 

“It’s become much easier to dive into your data using free or open source tools and beginning to get under the skin of an organisation. But the thing is, the IT behind it is the simplest part,” he says. 

“What we need to do is create an open standard or a shared standard around data for children’s services and that’s incredibly simple. The really, really hard part is all the people and all the culture. That is far harder to change. The technology is easy, people are hard.” 

According to Caplin, Barnardo’s is going through a “very classic, government service-style transformation” and at present prototypes of future data-led services are being built to address specific areas of social care provision. These could in turn bridge the gap between presenting valuable insight and the outcome reporting that commissioners require.  

“Fundamentally, it’s about looking at the data in a different way by joining up information between parts of the country. This will enable us to look at measurements of social mobility or exclusion and understand how those, in the context of other external data can help us identify parts of the population that need our help based on what the data tells us, not what our volunteers’ opinions are or what commissioners think the problem is,” says Caplin. 

The CDO is keen to stress that rather than defining what specific technology can support this platform, the main obstacle for the project is fear that things may go wrong or fear of risk, but Caplin believes even those challenges can be overcome.

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According to the executive, if Barnardo’s is able to work with organisations such as Open Data Partnership, in addition to government departments who have come up against some of these challenges before, third parties in the social care sector and some of the lobbyists and other stakeholders who are concerned about the associated risks, things might start moving faster. 

“We expect, to a certain extent, different systems to talk to each other and share data with each other, but we live in a world of open standards, application programme interfaces (APIs) and connectivity between systems, where computers deal with our data for us. The technology is incredibly straightforward, but getting over those fear hurdles is really challenging,” he says. 

In terms of deliverables in the data transformation program, Caplin’s team is currently collating statistics from its data, something that is now possible because data sets have been joined to provide key indicators to senior management around the number of children Barnardo’s is working with, as well as specific groups of people that are being helped in a particular area the charity’s work such as victims of child sexual abuse or domestic violence.

This now helps to address questions such as why the organisation is helping a specific number of children in certain areas and not so many in other regions, how many have been in care for how long. 

Internal data services are now being brought together as part of the work, something that the CDO describes as tedious but crucial. The work on this internal wiring will then ensure Barnardo’s is in a good position to approach service commissioners to help them understand the opportunities around supporting the common data platform. The challenge here is that since this is a novel approach, the charity can’t get it wrong. 

“We have to be confident that we have that conversation the right way, the sensitive way, the first time,” he says. “Questions will be asked about why we have never done this before, but the answer is because we’ve never done it together before – it’s never been a joint effort. It’s only ever been one side of story, so the opportunity is huge.” 

Managing risks

There is no specific timetable to make the social care data platform a reality, but according to Caplin, once the charity gets green lights from its key stakeholders to start creating prototypes and pilots, the results of the initiative could be seen very quickly – but the CDO accepts that the ride might not be necessarily smooth. 

“We know there are some challenges along the way in addition to the fear factor, not least legislation and the legal situation around children’s data, which is something that we’re going to need to talk about with our central government partners,” says Caplin. 

"So a lot of this is going to be designed by the comfort level of people when we talk to them about this.” 

External interaction about what Barnardo’s is planning to do regarding data has been limited until now, but according to Caplin, the initiative has received strong support from senior management and also know this is something that might not happen very fast. 

“Luckily, Barnardo’s isn’t putting a deadline on this for me because they know that this is an important goal, but that we want to get it right. Therefore, if it takes time, we need to work at it but I don’t think that this is something that takes decades,” he says.

“Everyone accepts that the risks are real and that this is all incredibly sensitive – so we need to step along the pathway carefully. If we get it right, the benefits for children are incredible and the possibilities for social mobility and for breaking the cycle of abuse for many of the children in our care are huge.”

Bringing central and local government authorities together

Caplin will now be leading a more visible effort to bring together central and local government authorities, the NHS and other care providers to come into a “trusted tent” where the rules of open standards for data sharing in the children’s social care sector will be set, as well as ways of working together in practice.

Within the coming 12 months, the executive expects to have completed the first prototype of open data systems working within certain local authorities where partners in the social care system of a child are able to share the information they need to provide specific services. 

“When the ‘new world’ arrives, I would expect it to be so simple and so seamless that the care practitioners, case workers and social workers won’t even realise that they are doing it,” says Caplin. 

"But if they were to look back a year, they will instantly realise how much of a difference this change has made,” he says. 

“We have the capability and the capacity and the opportunity at a very senior level to make this begin to happen. So the sooner we can find partners who are keen to get to pilot and to explore potentially doing this on the ground with groups of children, the better.” 

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