Hackathon, policy moves designed to apply tech to foster care programs

The White House launched a two-day hackathon to develop better data tools for foster care providers and social workers and announced a host of policy initiatives to back up the effort.

Gearing up for a hackathon. Photo courtesy 18F/GSA.

The opening ceremonies at a goverment-sponsored hackathon. (Photo credit: 18F/GSA)

The White House is hosting a two-day hackathon aimed at finding ways to upgrade the technology child welfare agencies use and enable foster children to access essential identity documents.

"Advances in technology have radically changed nearly every aspect of our lives, but for too many aspects of the foster care system, we're stuck in the last century," according to a White House statement.

Representatives from the Presidential Innovation Fellows program are helping facilitate the work the teams will be doing. Lynn Overmann, a senior adviser to the White House CTO and an experienced hand at hackathons, urged participants to start small and "get together across your key stakeholders, identify the problem you are trying to solve and then start with the first step."

Overmann commended the Obama administration's efforts to bring together lawyers, technologists and others and asked everyone to think along the lines of "how we can change our approach [by] figuring out the most effective way to change the system as quickly and as broadly as we can."

The effort, which is timed to coincide with National Foster Care Month, includes $1 million in consulting services from the Administration on Children, Youth and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services to encourage a more agile approach to acquiring data systems.

HHS is also releasing a new rule that "supports the use of cost-effective, innovative technologies to automate the collection of high-quality case management data" for use by social workers, administrators, researchers and policymakers. In addition, the Labor Department launched an app called GetMyFuture.org that provides a centralized source to "help young people plan their careers, explore education and training options, and search and apply for jobs."

The administration representatives leading the hackathon wrote in a blog post that "there seems to be a disconnect between the innovative work that's happening and the people who need these products in the child welfare system. There's also a disconnect between the entrepreneurs working to improve child welfare and the technologists and innovators who could build and scale these solutions."

Ron Haskins, a former White House and congressional adviser on welfare issues who is now co-director of the Brookings Institution's Center on Children and Families, told FCW there is always a need for a better data system because children in the foster care system "move around all the time. It's a challenging thing. Kids in foster care could move three, four, five times a year, and they could be in different types of facilities and be with different types of parents."

Overmann noted that "combined data can be unbelievably powerful in providing insights," something that many participants agreed is integral to determining how to improve the existing technology and create new tools.