Tapping tech to ease labour crunch in social service sector

Tech solutions, such as robots and video analytics, to be offered to charities at subsidised rate

The Barton Convertible Chair, which transforms a stretcher into an upright chair, on show at the Social Service Summit yesterday.
The Barton Convertible Chair, which transforms a stretcher into an upright chair, on show at the Social Service Summit yesterday.ST PHOTO: TIMOTHY DAVID

The social service sector will offer technological solutions to charities at a subsidised rate to help ease their manpower shortage.

These include video analytic and facial recognition programs that can monitor elderly beneficiaries, as well as artificial intelligence robots that help people with disabilities to connect to smart devices using their voices.

The solutions are part of two initiatives announced by the National Council of Social Service (NCSS) at the Social Service Summit yesterday, held at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre.

The annual event aims to inspire the sector to adopt solutions and nurture a culture of collaboration.

NCSS president Anita Fam told the gathering of around 1,000 social service professionals, donors and government representatives that the sector needs to innovate continually to tackle issues such as manpower and funding constraints.

"As society becomes increasingly complex and our needs evolve, our sector needs to reinvent itself and find new solutions to these challenges, with limited resources. We need to have a more open mindset, be open to change and new ideas, to new ways of doing things, and even be open to failing," Ms Fam said, adding that "innovation can change affordability, accessibility and effectiveness" of the sector.

A sector-wide survey conducted by the NCSS this year noted that most agencies said their lowest performing areas included funding and engagement, innovation and collaboration.


The initiatives announced at the event - Tech Booster and Project Back-to-Basics - are designed to help agencies alleviate staff shortages while using technology to build capabilities.

Agencies can adopt various technologies and get subsidies of between 90 and 98 per cent.

The initiatives are backed by close to $20 million from the National Productivity Fund, which provides grants for companies to invest in productivity.

Tech Booster aims to introduce technology to residential facilities that find it hard to hire people, such as adult disability homes, activity centres, and welfare and voluntary children's homes.

The technology showcased at the summit included a Global Positioning System tracker watch that can monitor the location of a beneficiary and create an electronic fence alarm. There were also sound monitoring sensors and human-like cleaning robots.

These technologies are expected to free up to 30 per cent of the time spent by care workers.

The second project - Back-to-Basics - provides funding to professionals such as social workers and therapists to adopt technology to handle routine tasks.

Trybe, a social service agency that helps run the Singapore Boys' Hostel and Community Rehabilitation Centre, is keen to adopt some of the gadgets, including the video analytics technology that can predict behaviours through facial recognition software to monitor its clients, who are youths and drug offenders.

Trybe assistant director Vimel Rajoo said: "The camera will help us detect the emotions of the clients in a setting. Based on the facial features and body postures, the technology can detect if the client is angry, happy or (has) any other emotions."

Early detection allows staff to intervene before a fight happens, a situation escalates or if a client needs help," he added. "It will also allow staff to place their attention on those who need help, while still supervising the rest."

The summit was hosted by Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee, who noted that the projects were a pathway towards the digital transformation of the sector. "I hope this will spark ideas on how we can encourage productivity, innovation and digital practices within our own organisations... and make the work of our professionals and our volunteers more manageable."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2019, with the headline 'Tapping tech to ease labour crunch in social service sector'. Subscribe