SA government using data to protect vulnerable children

The state government is embarking on a data-driven project it hopes will result in better outcomes for vulnerable children in South Australia.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

By the age of 10, one in four children in South Australia are known by the state's child protection system, and according to Peter Worthington-Eyre, chief data officer at South Australia's Department of Premier and Cabinet, this is a figure common to the rest of Australia.

In 2015-16, Worthington-Eyre said there were 95,000 reports to the child abuse report line; 21,000 of those were meeting the threshold for incident response to be investigated further.

In a bid to bring this number down, Worthington-Eyre and his department have embarked on a data-driven project to tackle this "wicked" problem impacting so many children across the state.

"This is our first big project -- they're called wicked problems because they're near-impossible to solve, so we're not going to have a silver bullet but we can certainly help," he said, speaking at the Technology in Government conference in Canberra on Tuesday.

Worthington-Eyre said there have been 18 major inquiries into child protection since 2006, with 11 strongly recommending better coordination between government departments, and eight of them focused on early intervention and support services. According to Worthington-Eyre, all of this can be achieved through the better use of data.

"In our Royal Commission ... information sharing was a key factor throughout," he said. "Really, what's missing there is government acting as one government and one citizen."

The challenge for the state government, Worthington-Eyre said, is working out how data and information can be used to achieve all of the above, given South Australia has 105,000 public servants and a "gazillion different systems" that have been used differently over time.

Currently, if someone calls to lodge a child-related incident, very little information is available to the respondent.

"This is part of that siloing that happens in government," he explained. "In this case, siloing causes us to potentially make the wrong decision."

He said it would make a positive difference if the responding officer knew the history of the child; that they had been in hospital or to the doctor for physical harm, or that there was a custody battle, as some examples.

Part of the project is developing a data linkage and analytics system that will increase understanding of children involved in the child protection system and support better case management.

To Worthington-Eyre, the key is using data and information better within government.

"Before we intervene and actually remove a child, we need to make sure it's actually that person," he explained. "This is the problem: We often provide solutions to unknown, half-given, or non-existent problems."

The CDO said one of the hardest parts of his job is compiling the information, likening it to the proverbial needle in a haystack.

To help the Department of Premier and Cabinet find this information, Worthington-Eyre said he is working with a number of different states and countries, such as New Zealand and Finland, which he said are both doing some great work in the child protection space.

"They help us refine which haystack we should be looking in to help us find the needle," he said.

"We've got really progressive legislation in SA that allows the government to share data with government agencies."

Worthington-Eyre and his teams spent four-and-a-half months getting the security element of the proof of concept sorted out, and within two weeks, the department's first results were achieved. Six weeks into the proof of concept, it was ready to be rolled out.

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