Are we at the point of a fundamental change in the role of IT in Human Services?

I’ve been working now for some 27 years in Human Services in -roles mostly related to the advanced use of IT by the business.  I was there through client server mainframe replacement in the early 90’s, business intelligence in the late 90’s, the Internet in the 00’s, composite applications and SOA in the late 00’s and COTS throughout the last 10 years. What was common with each of these shifts was that Human Services was slow to see the value and to adopt the changes on a large scale, unlike the banks, insurance companies and the airlines.

We are now on the edge of a new paradigm, and unlike all of the ones listed above, this is one that Human Services may well be an early mover in. “The Future is Cognitive,” says IBM. But what is it and why might it be different than previous technology advances?

Cognitive computing refers to systems that learn at scale, reason with purpose and interact with humans naturally. These systems aren’t programmed; they’re trained to sense, predict, infer and, in some ways, think, using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms that are exposed to massive data sets. The systems improve over time as they build knowledge and acquire depth in specialty areas or domains like child welfare, employment, disability management, substance abuse, elder services or any number of other social programs. In contrast to current computing systems, which require that rules be hard-coded into a system by a human expert, cognitive computers program themselves[1]. They process natural language, make sense of unstructured data such as case notes, and learn by experience much in the same way humans do. These systems not only bring massive parallel processing capabilities to churn through enormous volumes of often fluid data, but also use image and speech recognition as their “eyes” and “ears,” making interaction with humans more natural. The dynamic learning inherent in these systems provides a feedback loop for machines and humans to refine insights and teach one another.

Cognitive computing can enable new business models for social programs and can change the way caseworkers and other professionals work. For example, it could be used to:

  • Combine data from education, substance abuse systems, healthcare and child welfare to identify the best programmatic and services options for individual children or families in a manner that would otherwise be impossible.
  • Review case notes, potentially written over many years in multiple departments, to provide a caseworker with a summary of that includes key trends, themes, and other summary information.
  • Leverage health, physical therapy, behavioral health, and economic data to find the best care options for an elderly person who wants to live independently.
  • Assess the optimal training and education services to help get an unemployed person back to work as quickly as possible; while also analyzing economic and industry trends to determine which industries might be expected to provide employment opportunities for that individual over the long term.

Cognitive computing will require collaboration and different types of partnerships, ones that extend across the public and private sector and into academic and research organizations. The capabilities enabled by cognitive computing may require government leaders to rethink their operating models. While some processes may be refined, others will need to be reinvented, and still others built from scratch. New skills and training will be required, such as developing the ability to design and frame appropriate challenges for cognitive systems. New ways of thinking, working and collaborating will invariably lead to cultural and organizational change, some of which may be challenging, particularly for managers accustomed to relying on their own judgment and experience to form decisions rather than working in a data-driven partnership. But these issues, like any transformation, can be resolved through an effective change management program.

In the last 6 months, we have taken our early work in Healthcare and have started moving it into the Human Services field. The early work gives me confidence that this time – it may be different. We’re working with Stewards of Change to look at where this is heading and what the implications are for Human Services. We look forward to presenting our thoughts in Baltimore in June.

 

About IBM Watson Health: 

IBM Watson Health is working to enhance, scale and accelerate human expertise across the domains of health, human services, workforce services and social security, to help people live healthier, more productive lives. It is pioneering the use of cognitive technologies that understand, reason and learn to help social program organizations unlock the potential of data and analytics to improve service delivery. To IBM, Health is not just healthcare, it is individual health, community health, employer health and economic health for better outcomes at lower cost.

[1] IBM. http://www-935.ibm.com/services/c-suite/think-leaders/new-vocabulary-cognitive-computing.html?lnk=ushpv18ce3l

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  • Daniel Stein
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    Check out our White Paper about Cognitive and Child Welfare applications on the SOC web site.

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