Technology Trends: Technology for Social Good
Technology has transformed social work. The COVID-19 pandemic, when social workers had to pivot suddenly in the spring of 2020 to ensure that clients’ needs could be met remotely, certainly accelerated the pace. But even before the unbidden onset of the pandemic, many social workers were moving in this direction through their use of remote video counseling software, smartphone apps, online group services, and electronic records.
In addition to using technology for clinical purposes, increasing numbers of social workers are using technology for “social good,” that is, to address complex social issues that extend beyond the delivery of services to individual clients. It’s important for social workers to explore the creative ways in which they can leverage technological tools to advance the profession’s enduring commitment to social justice.
The Emergence of Technology in Social Work
Many resources and services of particular interest to social workers emerged on the internet as early as 1982—for example, in the form of online self-help support groups. Smartphones, which are now ubiquitous in social workers’ and clients’ lives, emerged in the 1990s.
Today, large numbers of social workers use video counseling, e-mail, social networking websites, text messaging, avatar-based platforms, self-guided web-based interventions, smartphone apps, and other technology to provide services to clients, some of whom they never meet in person. As a result of these developments, today’s social workers can use technology to communicate with clients remotely, store clients’ records and other information, search online for information, prepare reports and other documents, deliver services to clients remotely, manage budgets, conduct online meetings, provide staff training, and analyze program evaluation data.
Technology for Social Good
According to the nonprofit organization New America, public interest technology refers to the study and application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, and promote the public good: “The emphasis is on a notion of public interest or common good, as distinguished from the design of technology or technology policy to advance commercial or individual goals and interests. The public interest—while difficult to define—is understood to reflect the welfare of society in general, rather than the welfare of a particular individual, group, or company.”
Social workers and other human service professionals have been using technology to promote social good and advance the public interest in remarkably creative ways.
The Columbia University School of Social Work sponsors the Justice, Equity, Technology Lab, whose purpose is to link social work and emerging technologies to prevent harm and promote social equality. The lab’s projects are grounded explicitly in antiracist and antioppressive practice. Examples include using artificial intelligence (e.g., machine learning, chatbots) to understand and address the root causes of community-based violence, and exploring the use of other technological tools (e.g., virtual reality) to shape empathy, behavior, and structural competence related to racial inequality.
The University of Michigan School of Social Work’s Level-Up Lab uses technology to enhance equity in employment to underserved groups by developing, evaluating, and supporting the implementation of internet-based simulations. One example includes a computerized simulation to help transition-age youth with autism practice their skills in a work setting by repeatedly practicing conversations with virtual customers, coworkers, and supervisors.
The Equity Data Science Lab at Boston University uses computing and data science to enhance understanding of issues related to inequity, including race, gender, sexual identity, physical and emotional ability, ethnicity, and immigrant status and design solutions. One project aims to develop and maintain the nation’s largest online database of racial inequity data, presented to the public in the form of infographics. A key goal is to track, visualize, and analyze racial inequities in real time across multiple sectors of society, including criminal justice, economics, health, and education.
The Social Justice Informatics program in Austin, Texas, aims to use technology to address social justice issues. Social justice informatics involves applying public interest technology to the pursuit of social justice. The program focuses on challenges related to racism, human rights, poverty, environmental justice, and efforts to promote a more just society.
Social workers have also used technology to raise public awareness about compelling social justice issues, build and organize communities, and promote activism and social action. In one prominent example, several years ago social work professionals, academics, and allies communicated through social media and digital technologies with the labor organization UNITE HERE and low-wage workers of Hyatt Hotels in San Antonio. This virtual community-organizing effort helped bring a large community of social workers together in support of those workers, advocating for the Society for Social Work Research to honor the local boycott of San Antonio Hyatt Hotels by relocating their annual conference.
At the time, UNITE HERE, along with hospitality workers at Hyatt Hotels in San Antonio, were actively engaged in a campaign to challenge low pay, poor working conditions, and antiunion practices allegedly engaged in by the hotel corporation. Many social workers took issue with a social work conference violating an active boycott that addresses key social justice issues. These virtual organizing efforts led to in-depth discussions and action steps focused on the social justice implications of the Society for Social Work Research’s policies and practices.
Guidelines for Technology Use
In 2017, following unprecedented collaboration among key social work organizations—NASW, Council on Social Work Education, Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), and Clinical Social Work Association—the profession formally adopted new, comprehensive practice standards that focus on social workers' use of technology to promote social good. A number of these standards focus explicitly on social workers’ use of technology for this purpose. These practice standards state: “Technology can greatly enhance social workers’ ability to engage in social action, promote social justice, work with communities, administer organizations, and develop social policy.”
Social workers have a rich heritage of advocating for social change, engaging in policy practice, and improving the services provided to individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers use websites, online social networking, and other electronic communications to mobilize and organize communities and advocate about policy issues. Social workers who use thought-provoking language and stories to attract attention and motivate people to action should ensure that the content of their communications is honest, accurate, respectful, and is neither exploitative of clients nor sensationalistic. Social workers may use technology to communicate political messages and mobilize clients, colleagues, and citizens to engage in social action and monitor legislative activities.
In addition, recognizing the profound impact that technology is having on social work practice, in 2013 the ASWB board of directors appointed an international task force to develop model regulatory standards for technology and social work practice. ASWB embarked on development of new standards in response to demand from regulatory bodies around the globe for guidance concerning social workers' evolving use of technology. The ASWB task force included representatives from prominent social work practice, regulation, and education organizations throughout the world. These model regulatory standards are particularly relevant to social workers’ efforts to use technology for social good.
Finally, in 2017, following task force recommendations, NASW added many new standards to its Code of Ethics specifically related to social workers’ use of technology. A number of these standards are directly relevant to practitioners’ use of technology to organize a wide range of social justice, advocacy, and social action efforts.
According to the code, “Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice.”
Moreover, social work has taken uniquely ambitious steps to develop comprehensive ethical, regulatory, and practice standards to guide practitioners’ efforts to use technology for social good. These are efforts worth celebrating.
— Frederic G. Reamer, PhD, is a professor in the graduate program of the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. He is the author of many books and articles, and his research has addressed mental health, health care, criminal justice, and professional ethics.
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New America. “What is public interest technology?” https://www.newamerica.org/pit-un/about/frequently-asked-questions/#what-is-public-interest-technology.
National Association of Social Workers. (2021). National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English.
National Association of Social Workers, Association of Social Work Boards, Council on Social Work Education, & Clinical Social Work Association. (2017). Standards for technology in social work practice. https://www.socialworkers.org/includes/newincludes/homepage/PRA-BRO-33617.TechStandards_FINAL_POSTING.pdf.
Reamer, F. G. (2021). Ethics and risk management in online and distance social work. Cognella.