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Peer Perspectives

Social Work and New Technologies in Italy

By Simona Guzzi

Today social workers operate amid the emergence of increasingly complex needs, by the rapid change in the social organization models, and by the dwindling availability of resources. This environment makes it difficult to identify appropriate responses that meet the real needs of citizens and can ensure the right welfare conditions. Therefore, technological innovation, if properly used, allows us to successfully face the new social challenges and can be an effective tool to promote the best practices.

Lately, we have witnessed a rapid and pervasive diffusion of new technologies that have profoundly transformed the society in which we live and have generated new relational paradigms born from the research of innovative solutions to everyday problems. Europe’s Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Active and Assisted Living (AAL) Joint Program represent some examples of innovation through which lives can be improved, especially those who are disadvantaged by disability, illness, and aging.

ICT has brought about a new way to treat information; now you can transmit, manipulate and store data electronically. Its development has, in recent years, been particularly fast and therefore we can consider information technologies, e.g., digital devices and software programs, and communication, e.g., telematic networks, the pillars on which the society rests and around which social work needs to be redesigned.

Social workers are aware of the fact that technological innovations, in particular digital technologies, have changed the nature of the practice of social work in significant ways.  Organizationally, according to Sara Dunn in The Guardian, most use digital technologies “to plan and record services, and more than one-half use them directly with the people they support. They’re used to enhance communication between service users and their family and friends, to organize leisure activities for service users, and to help people plan their own care and support.”

In addition, social workers use e-mail professionally every day: SMS text messaging, video chats (e.g., Skype), online media (e.g., Facebook), and various computing devices (e.g., laptop computers and smartphones) that carry out a wide range of communication and information functions. In Italy, in the field of social service, the attention towards ICT was actualized with Article 21 of Law 328/2000, “Framework Law for the Implementation of the Integrated System of Interventions and Social Services,” which established the Social Services Informative System (SSIS).

With SSIS, the Italian government sought to promote a detailed knowledge of the needs of citizens by creating digital information flows in order to allow all those who work in the social sector, in particular social workers, to have data and information to plan, manage, and evaluate interventions and social policies and to promote the integration and coordination of such policies with health and labor policies. SSIS is organized into three subsystems: Informative System Services and Interventions for Persons Not Self-sufficient, Informative System Services and Interventions for Children and Adolescents, and Informative System of Interventions and Social Services, which is aimed at combating poverty and social exclusion. SSIS utilizes a set of web-based tools intended to improve how the service is provided, the work management, the collaboration and interaction among the social workers, and the monitoring of the services provided. Thanks to SSIS, it is possible to ensure the computerization of all stages of social work by recording the user’s request inside a special digital social folder together with their socioeconomic situation, the possible contacts with other services (e.g., health care and labor policies), and the interventions prepared for them. This computerization will ensure a constant monitoring of the actions and a rationalization of resources.

The use of ICT and associated performance management has become a central feature of social work practice. Social work cannot see itself separated from the information age and will have to adapt. For these reasons it is crucial that the social worker has adequate skills related to the use of ICT in order to effectively lead different types of social change initiatives or collaborate with professionals of other disciplines who are using ICT as part of existing strategies.

However, the challenges social workers must face affect not only their ability to adapt to new ways of organizing their work and to relate to the users, but also their ability to integrate the tools provided by the new technologies with their traditional work procedures in order to meet the ever-changing needs of the population that will require, in the near future, a reorganization of interventions and services. In Europe it is estimated that by 2020, one-quarter of the citizens will be older than 60, and the number of people in that demographic will grow by 70% by 2050. These data, combined with low birth rates, will cause a substantial change in the structure of the European society, with a consequent impact on the economy, on social and health care systems, on the labor market, and so on.

The European Union (EU) research and innovation programs have allowed us to identify and develop the necessary tools to face the multiple challenges derived by the demographic change. The AAL is an example of how the EU tries to create better living conditions for the older adults and people with disabilities through technical innovations that can ensure the promotion of independent living. Thanks to the use of IT and technology tools installed in their homes, dependent persons can continue to live in their own home while preserving their own habits, their social relationships, and their freedom. The AAL, which provides for the use and combination of technologies from different sectors (e.g., telecommunications, IT, home automation, and robotics), helps increase the autonomy of dependent persons and facilitates their daily activities by ensuring good security conditions, monitoring and treating sick people, and building a network of relationships around the person in order to prevent their isolation.

Italy, along with other European countries, is working actively in trial project of social robotics (robots that are able to establish coordinated interactions with other robots and human beings) including ROBOT-ERA, which aims to accelerate the development and increase the spread of robotic services for elders. This project, coordinated in Italy by BioRobotics Institute of Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna of Pisa, has provided the construction of three robots for elders that are able to work in urban and domestic contexts. The robots are controlled by a tablet. DORO (DOmestic RObot) is a robot butler that helps the older adult move around the house and remember appointments (not to mention time of medicines), and is also able to detect gas leaks, make video calls, and shop online. CORO (COndominium RObot) is for surveillance and home security. ORO (Outdoor RObot) is able to move independently around the city, thanks to its position and anticollision sensors, and can be used to pick up the shopping, get rid of the garbage, or take an older adult out for a walk. The three social robots have been tested in Italy and Sweden from 2013–2015 in residential homes thanks to an interdisciplinary pilot program consisting of universities, research centers, social services, Tuscan health care companies, small and medium-sized enterprises, and public institutions. The project was successful; the elders involved in the experiment were very happy and satisfied with the experience.

Is this the future in which social workers will work? Organizing services to the individual that involve the use of social robots that interact with the user by taking care of them and responding to their needs throughout the day?

Technology is a part of life that cannot be ignored, since it can improve people’s lives, provided that its use is responsible and respectful toward the human dimension.

— Simona Guzzi is a specialist social worker and PhD student on fields of interaction and integration between the human sciences and advanced technologies.