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What If Lab | How data and design can help prevent custodial placements

26 October 2018

The removal of a child from the family home is a traumatic event. Social workers in the youth welfare sector do everything possible to prevent this from happening. Nevertheless, in 2017, for every 10,000 children, 121 were removed from their families. How can we apply design to find a solution for this?

How can we apply design to prevent custodial placement?

In the What if Lab: Smart Society meets design of the Association of Dutch Municipalities (VNG) and the Dutch Design Foundation, digital design agency Greenberry, together with Garage2020, set out to find applications for this data among youth social workers. The key question that we wanted to answer with the What if Lab was: How can we successfully utilize data within the youth welfare sector in order to minimize the likelihood of a custodial placement?

The data analysis conducted by the Municipality of Amsterdam identified certain recognizable patterns. It also showed that there is room for improvement in terms of the information available to social workers. However, just hearing the word 'data’ will lead many a social worker to raise an eyebrow. After all, isn't data just cold, hard, anonymous information that has little to do with the empathetic and intuitive work of social workers?

Not put on this earth to sit in front of a computer

The first step in our design process was a comprehensive series of interviews with the front-line professionals. In total, we talked to eight social workers. During the interviews we resolved not to talk too much about data. Instead, we focussed our discussions on the participants' work, their frustrations, their motivations. These were great conversations, during which we gained ever more respect for the work that social workers do. But we also gained increasing insight into the challenges facing the youth welfare sector: from extremely high workloads to reluctance among professionals to take action.

The interviews showed us that youth welfare is an intuitive profession. On the basis of experience and feeling, in consultation with families, children and other professionals (during case discussions), decisions are made about the next form of intervention. Data currently plays no role in this. We learned that social workers were not put on this earth to sit in front of a computer, and primarily want to spend their time with their clients. We also discovered that there is a need among social workers for confirmation of their decisions. Am I seeing the situation clearly? And is this the right intervention pathway for my client?

How can we...

In a design session with designers, care professionals and team leaders from Garage2020, the Municipality of Amsterdam and Greenberry, we set to work on the development of a prototype, in a process of co-design. We took the interviews as our point of departure: how can we create a tool that facilitates professionals in deciding between the different intervention pathways? How can we give social workers insight into comparable situations? How can we show them all the possible options (including the lesser known ones) within a course of intervention? And how can we help them to analyse a case more quickly and efficiently?

Over the course of several co-design sessions we developed two concepts. We worked on the details of each concept using storyboards and talked again with the social workers. We presented the storyboards in the Greenberry lab and had the social workers test out the concepts in practice. They were asked to explore the prototype in depth, to improve it and to add to it. By the end of the prototype test we had arrived at a viable concept: an ‘extra team member’ for the youth social workers.

Playing with toys

During the interviews with the social workers we discovered that social workers never make a decision about a client without having in-depth discussions with other professionals and colleagues. To further support this process, we developed the concept of 'an extra team member'. Imagine there is a team member who has information about all the youth welfare cases in Amsterdam (and later, in the whole of the Netherlands). And above all, who you can consult during your discussions with the team or a client.

However, we didn't want to produce a data tool which social workers would be forced to sit in front of a computer to use. Our preference was to create a physical product, through which the data can easily be retrieved without too much clicking and tapping on a screen. So, we played with toys. As we did so, we searched for a suitable format.                                       

“If this concept works, the result could be game-changing" - Sabine

The extra team member

The extra team member consists of a game board, wooden blocks and a software application. Each intervention pathway is represented by a particular wooden block, and these blocks are placed in a time line on the game board, by the social worker. This creates a visual time line of all the intervention pathways deployed so far.                                                                                                                             

The extra team member application has 'knowledge’ of all the possible cases and supports the social worker, by means of data analysis, in their choice of the next intervention pathway for their client. By taking a photo of the game board (the wooden blocks are identified as code via image recognition) in the application, social workers can immediately see what a logical next intervention might be. In addition, the extra team member application presents stories and background information associated with the different intervention pathways. The waiting times, availability and locations of the different options are also shown. What's more, by digitizing the game board we accumulate new anonymous data about different intervention pathways.

In practice

During Dutch Design Week 2018, Greenberry, Garage2020 and the Municipality of Amsterdam will present the prototype: an extra team member. Designed with and for social workers. The prototype can be seen at the VNG Realisatie stand in the Klokgebouw, hall 4. The next step is to translate the prototype into a functioning application that we can test in practice. Ideas? Interested? Tips? We would love to hear from you via


This article was written by Alain Dujardin, creative director at Greenberry.
Translation: Rebecca Heyluer, D2E Translations.