WTF (What’s the Future) of Settlement Work 5: technology & innovation for the public interest

Welcome to the fifth edition of WTF (What’s the Future) of Settlement Work!

(Thanks for subscribing! As always, I’d love your feedback. All you need to do is hit reply and let me know what you liked, didn’t like, what you’d like to see that’s not here, etc. I hope you find this week’s edition a useful read! Marco)

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What I’m writing or talking about

In 2015, I wrote about where we might be in a few years when it comes to technology innovation in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector: “It’s 2018. Other nonprofit and for-profit settlement service providers have gone forth and are providing client service online. The settlement sector has learned from the lessons of early service technology adopters. Settlement organizations have more completely integrated technology into their service philosophy and policies, and are exceeding standards for technology and service practice.” Still got a bit of a way to go.

Deep Dive: public-interest technologists

If you’re interested in cybersecurity, online trust and security and privacy in general, you should be reading Bruce Schneier’s work. I hadn’t heard about the idea of public-interest technologists (as compared, say, with civic tech folks) and I like it. It’s a fit for our sector, its values (i.e. the CCR 12 Core Settlement Values) and as a way of looking at technology as something that serves us, rather than us serving it: “The Ford Foundation defines public-interest technologists as “technology practitioners who focus on social justice, the common good, and/or the public interest.” A group of academics recently wrote that public-interest technologists are people who “study the application of technology expertise to advance the public interest, generate public benefits, or promote the public good.” Tim Berners-Lee has called them “philosophical engineers.” I think of public-interest technologists as people who combine their technological expertise with a public-interest focus: by working on tech policy, by working on a tech project with a public benefit, or by working as a traditional technologist for an organization with a public benefit. Maybe it’s not the best term­ — and I know not everyone likes it­ — but it’s a decent umbrella term that can encompass all these roles.”

Make sure you also check out his regularly updated list of Public-Interest Technology Resources (which I just discovered and now have a lot of reading to do). 

Existential technology thinking

How the Canadian government is only boosting the surveillance of immigrants without any regard for their humanity.

OK, this is perhaps more practical, and pressing, than existential, but the article does a great job of meandering through and connecting the many philosophical, practical, and pressing issues facing our sector when it comes to increased government use of surveillance technologies in immigration and settlement, without as much oversight as perhaps it requires: “Unlike the aunties of Regent Park, the watchful eye of police and an immigration algorithm is far from forgiving, let alone caring. Where aunties understand the cultural context, the dynamics and relationships between their children and their friends, and their motivations, the surveillance tools pursued by the government have no regard for the humanity of these individuals, seeing the predominantly low-income community of colour as criminal and worse, not deserving a place in Canadian society. These tools will birth a generation of fearful immigrants kept outside the sphere of political engagement and full civil liberties. Before deploying new tools for the surveillance of communities in Regent Park and beyond, consultation, outreach, and a deep understanding of the motivations of these immigrants must be pursued. For now, immigrants in Regent Park are under the watchful eye of aunties. Perhaps the Canadian government would be better off consulting with them to perfect their immigration decisions.”

Learn, Learn, Learn

All settlement workers should be experts in providing Information and Referral. This course is a great introduction (disclaimer: I helped create it so might be biased… ) Run by Findhelp Information Services’ amazing trainer, Faed Hendry (if you’ve even been lucky enough to experience his training, you know he’s awesome), this self-directed online training course is ideal for Case Managers, Settlement Workers in Schools (SWIS), Settlement Workers in Libraries, Settlement Counsellors, LINC or ESL Teachers or others that have direct contact with immigrants and refugees. Find it on the OCASI Learn AtWork site:  Settlement Information and Referral Online Training Program (Self-Directed).

The interview

If we’re going to talk about technology in human services, we can’t leave the service agencies and workers out. To be aspirational is great. But, what does it take to make it work, practically, day to day? In this podcast episode I interviewed Dave Montague, formerly the OCASI IT & New Media Manager, now working at Findhelp on 211 and other I&R stuff. 

This conversation is from 2016, totally relevant today. In 2015, Dave presented a great perspective about how the immigrant and refugee-serving sector in Ontario has grappled with something that seems so important, building communities of practice, and how technology can help facilitate those communities (timely given the soft launch of a national Community of Practice, right?). I talked to Dave a bit about that, recapping what he learned and the ideas he has to get the sector embracing the potential of technology in their client service. We spent the rest of our chat discussing use of technology by workers, and how Dave saw uptake of technology trending in the immigrant service sector and beyond.

Research Snapshots

Sector research

Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation (United Way)

So this is utterly deflating. I’m sure you’ve seen it. But it’s important for us all to read: “Rebalancing the Opportunity Equation looks at income trends between 1980 – 2015, as well as the income gap between young people, immigrants, racialized groups and the rest of the population in Peel, Toronto and York regions. The findings paint a stark picture of who has access to the opportunities to succeed, and who is being left behind because of circumstances they can’t control.” 

And, yet, as we all know, have known, and will continue to know, Can’t Go it Alone: Immigration Is Key to Canada’s Growth Strategy…  “The solutions assessed include welcoming more immigrants, improving the labour force participation of women, Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities, boosting the fertility rate, and advances in technology such as automation and artificial intelligence.” Perhaps we should pay all those folks adequately too?

I mean, have we actually moved the needle very much since reports like The Facts Are In! A study of the characteristics and experiences of immigrants seeking employment in regulated professions in Ontario were published (in 2002…)??? 

Ethnographic/Community-based research

Why social work belongs in the future – and some ideas about how to get there!

Less a specific piece of research, and more a body of research, consultation, investigation and provocation about the role social workers (and I would suggest all human service workers, such as settlement workers) have in crafting the future of work: “As much fun as it can be to learn about essential futures frameworks as a starting point, it is also important to focus in on WHERE social work is most urgently needed in spaces where in many respects, the future is being “decided,” “developed” and “deployed.” What does it mean that these evolutions are in play without us (and the values/skills we bring) and we are not participating nor contributing in a major way?”

Tech and innovation research

When it comes to innovation, how it’s funded matters. Your main experience with funding is likely time-restricted program grants, rather than, say, unrestricted, general support. This research focuses on American foundation grant giving, but there were lines that reminded me of what people in the immigrant and refugee-serving sector have been saying about how they’re funded, and treated, by funders: “The real reason foundations don’t give general support: They don’t trust their grantees… Progressive foundations’ reliance on program grants limits the effectiveness of their grantees – and themselves…”

And, if you believe, as you should, that our sector is founded on social justice principles, and should be actively working in that space along with service provision, this becomes about our democracy as well. Because it’s possible that the other side is investing in long-term capacity building, in actual collaboration with grantees: “An empire of conservative philanthropy giants ‘didn’t invest in issues or programs, or dole out one-year restricted grants. They invested in ideas, institutions and people. They gave general support to a core group of multi-issue think tanks, legal groups, leadership institutes, and media outfits year after year, decade after decade.'” 

I don’t have answers, but I know the sector does and has shared those ideas with funders for years, and reports like this increase the urgency in shifting how our sector is funded, IMHO.

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