Research Magazine 2006

Social workers look to Internet for assistance

Social workers and their clients need easy access to the latest social services information. But harnessing this ever-changing data is difficult. Two UT Arlington researchers are turning to the Internet to solve the problem.

Social work Professor Dick Schoech and alumnus Mitch Hill are developing a wiki to make disseminating this information simpler and more convenient.

wiki

Wikis popped up in the mid-1990s, the most famous being Wikipedia, a collaborative technology that lets users add, remove and edit content. The server software is groundbreaking in the way it organizes massive amounts of information.

Currently, two main tools aid in the consolidation of social work research. The first are guidebooks and area resource directories like the Community Council of Greater Dallas’ Source Book. The second is a telephone service in which clients dial 211 and request a community resource. Both contain great information but not always enough detail.

The social work-themed wiki was born at a workshop aptly titled Changing the Face of Social Work. Hill, a social worker, told Dr. Schoech about the difficulties his colleagues and clients had finding current, detailed community resources. Hill had toyed with the idea of creating a Web portal fueled by private vendors, but he ditched the plan because it was too expensive and complex to operate.

After a brainstorming session, Schoech and Hill (’98 M.S.S.W.) decided to launch a wiki, which, unlike a conventional Web portal, is cheap and easy.

“The wiki will allow users, human service professionals and clients to contribute to the information and referral knowledge base by adding their knowledge of resources,” Schoech said. “This would ultimately create a dynamic and comprehensive source of much-needed detailed information.”

It would also help students, who often are new to the area, find the resources they need for classes and internship projects.

The men took the idea to the School of Social Work’s Community Services Center with hopes that the center could be the wiki’s hub. CSC student interns could add resources as they did research for clients and community projects.

Joy Paton, an intern and graduate student in Schoech’s Advanced Use of Information Technology in Human Services course, studied one agency to determine the wiki’s feasibility. Results were positive.

“We determined that an effective way to enhance existing information and referral services would be to develop a system that promotes collaboration among social service agencies and organizations, social service professionals, social work faculty, students, individuals and families in the community,” she said. “This would provide a resource with detailed information for everyone who seeks it.”

Wikis have one potential drawback. The very thing that defines them—public control—can also destroy them if people contribute false information. UT Arlington organizers hope to avoid the problem with a strong advisory committee to quickly remove inaccuracies.

“Given that a large team of dedicated human service professionals and students at the University will be working the wiki, the most up-to-date and relevant resource information is expected to be collected and maintained,” Hill said.

He and Schoech hope a pilot version of the wiki will be running by year’s end.

— Camille Rogers