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UW School of Social Work taps technology to help curb suicide and improve child welfare

Published on October 1, 2015

Edwina “Eddie” Uehara, University of Washington professor and Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work, is leading a movement to harness technology to enhance her school’s efforts. Photo: UW School of Social Work.

Edwina “Eddie” Uehara, a University of Washington professor and Ballmer Endowed Dean in Social Work, is eager to facilitate cultural exchanges. Not exchanges of people from different countries or ethnicities, but from disciplines that can be worlds apart: computer technology and social work.

“It really is this moment,” said Uehara, “when all of us are pivoting toward harnessing what this region is good at.”

It’s bringing together the Puget Sound area’s tremendous technology skills, its devoted philanthropists and the academic expertise and community relationships of the UW’s School of Social Work. Each brings its own strengths, she said, with technology’s penchant for innovation, moving quickly and embracing change and the UW’s deep understanding of complicated social issues and trust from the community.

“Neither sector can do it on their own,” Uehara said.

And through these collaborations, the school is helping move social programs that have lagged behind technologically into the 21st Century.

Just today, Connie and Steve Ballmer announced a $20 million gift to the UWSchool of Social Work, bringing their total funding the school to $32 million over the past five years.


Two projects currently underway highlight this new tech emphasis: One focuses on social media and suicide prevention, and the other is helping child welfare service providers in Washington more easily access information, coordinate care and evaluate their performance.

Earlier this year, the UW announced a partnership with Facebook to develop tools to help both people at risk of suicide and their friends and family. This week, Facebook representatives are returning to campus to meet with people who have lost loved ones to suicide. The goal is for the social media site to better understand the needs of people in this situation and to test tools for assisting them.

The need for suicide prevention is significant.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people age 15 to 34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There is a lot of potential for good with social media that often doesn’t get talked about,” said Jennifer Stuber, co-founder ofForefront, a suicide prevention organization within the School of Social Work, and one of the leads in the Facebook collaboration.

Facebook’s underlying purpose is to connect people and those connections are a significant “protective factor” in preventing suicide, Stuber said. “Social media is here to stay, so how can we shape that experience to have it be a positive one.”

Facebook has added tools to its site providing suicide prevention resources and guidance for concerned friends and family who want to help, but aren’t sure what steps to take. The resources include phone numbers for suicide prevention hotlines and tips for talking to someone at risk. The site has a link for Facebook users to report someone who could be suicidal.


If Facebook deems the concern is credible, the person at risk will receive messages in their news feed suggesting where they can get help. The site is also providing more targeted resources for higher-risk populations including veterans and the LBGTQ community.

There has been some backlash to the suicide prevention effort, with people accusing Facebook of Big Brother snooping and unwanted tracking of people who could be suicidal.

Stuber said that’s not what she’s seeing, and in fact wishes they’d do more to proactively identify people who could be suicidal and share resources in everyone’s news feed.

The suicide prevention resources can be tricky to find on the social media site. A Facebook user can go to the drop-down menu to the right of privacy shortcuts icon on the tool bar at the top of the page, click on the “Report a Problem” link, select “Abusive Content” and then “Report Something.”

From there, suicide prevention resources are provided under “Special Types of Reports.” Alternately, they can choose the “Report Post” link when reading a specific post, then check “I think it shouldn’t be on Facebook” and then “It advocates violence or harm to a person or animal” or “It’s threatening, violent or suicidal.”

“[Facebook is] trying to walk a fine line of providing support and resources without being overly intrusive and invasive,” Stuber said.

Facebook declined to share with GeekWire information about how many people have accessed the resources or reported potentially suicidal users.

Since 2000, suicide rates have been increasing nationally and more than 40,000 people took their own lives in 2013 – most of them men. If Facebook “can connect people to people who care, and provide resources, that’s a big deal,” Stuber said. “And I get the sense that they are genuinely trying to do it.”

A new focus for the partnership is supporting friends and family after a suicide, Stuber said, and addressing the ‘contagion’ phenomenon where someone considers suicide after someone else takes their own life. Because people use Facebook as a place for memorials and sharing grief, it provides an important opportunity for guiding people to support and preventing additional loss.


The Facebook partnership with the UW’s Forefront program “is a great example of the direction the school is going in,” said Uehara, dean of the School of Social Work. “It’s not an anomaly. It’s part of the movement we’re developing.”

Also part of that movement is a child welfare project launched by the UW’s Partners for Our Children center. A $16.5 million program called Oliver is building software and apps that will help coordinate care and evaluate the effectiveness of services for kids temporarily in foster care and homeless teens.

The foster care app is already being tested in Spokane, and Tacoma providers are going to begin testing this week. The Oliver app will help coordinate court-ordered, supervised visits between kids temporarily living with foster families and their parents. There are 8,500 kids in foster care in Washington, some of whom are meeting with their parents two or three times a week.

“There is a lot of planning that takes place,” said Ben de Haan, executive director of Partners for Our Children. “The visits are monitored by private companies, and there is transportation that is involved and a lot of paperwork.”

The new tool should make the coordination as straightforward as online booking for a flight on Alaska Airlines, de Haan said, where you select routes and choose your seats.

The second project underway is trying to bring some order to the web of services available to homeless youth. The major challenge is the lack of a central authority managing services for the teens, services that can come from the state, county and city. It’s difficult for anyone to know who is getting which services where.

The Oliver project has support from the Gates Foundation, Connie and Steve Ballmer and others. The goal is to make the project self-sustaining within five years through low-cost user fees. Early analysis shows that the new technology can cut the time spent on paperwork by 40 percent, freeing those resources for interactions directly with the children and youth.

“Software and new tailor-made software are incredibly expensive and the people using it are working with some of the poorest people in our society,” de Haan said. The nonprofit groups providing the services don’t have the resources to invest in technology that will improve efficiency, so “we’re trying to help folks catch up.”

While the Oliver project has focused on social services for children in Washington, the software should be readily adaptable for other states to use.


“Seattle is well known as being a hotbed for technological innovation and the University of Washington is well known for its research,” de Haan said. “It’s only natural that Seattle would come together to use technology to solve social problems. You can see why it would happen here.”

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