How Is Big Data Helping Social Workers?

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Data analytics is proving to be useful for social workers.

When people hear the term “big data,” they usually think of social media advertising, business predictions, or even healthcare research. But the evolving field of data analytics is also proving to be useful in the social work field. The Chicago Police Department, for example, is using data to develop what it calls a “heat list” of young people at risk of becoming involved in gun violence, according to WeirFoulds LLP’s “The Perils of Prediction: Lessons for Regulators in the Age of Big Data” on

“The heat list uses an algorithm to assign a risk score to a person based on criminal record,” the article explains. “The higher the score, the greater the risk you will be involved in gun violence. Those with high scores receive a ‘custom notification.’ This involves a home visit from the police and a social worker and an influential member of the community, for example, a pastor or sports coach. [They then offer] a referral to social services should the person wish to seek help in turning his or her life around.”

As the capabilities and accuracy of data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) increase, social workers can expect to have access to valuable insights about the demographics they serve. Students pursuing an online master’s in social work should consider familiarizing themselves with tools of data collection in social work research to develop skills they might need when they begin their practice.

Big Data in Social Work: Obstacles to Overcome

Data collection and analytics through the use of machine learning and AI algorithms help business, government, and non-profit organizations better understand complicated, multifaceted problems and issues. Decision-makers can use the insights and predictions generated by big data to determine strategy and direction for their organizations.

“Big data has a role to play not only in faster learning and business insight, but if used responsibly, big data can be applied to help address a range of complex global challenges,” writes NewVantage founder Randy Bean in his Forbes article, “Another Side of Big Data: Big Data for Social Good.”

One major problem facing social work data analytics is the lack of communication between agencies and a reluctance to share raw data with each other. In “Big Data for Social Innovation” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review journal, researchers Kevin C. Desouza and Kendra L. Smith discuss a number of issues that should be addressed if big data is going to be useful in social work, including:

  • Data is buried in administrative systems: As the use of computers in the social work industry proliferated, organizations began saving data in their own computer systems, which were programmed to meet their specific needs. No standardized data configuration has been developed that would enable large compilations of data sets from a range of social work institutions, which means that social work and research entities would need to cooperate and standardize their data before big data can be harnessed in social work.
  • Data governance standards are lacking: Standardizing data depends on data governance laws and regulations. For instance, some social work organizations continue to store and publish their information in PDF formats that don’t allow for automated retrieval of pertinent data. Adequate levels of governance can define appropriate data capture methods and standardize how data should be stored and curated for later use.
  • Data is often unreliable: When data becomes a business, manipulation of data in service of various agendas is rarely far behind. For social work institutions to provide the best possible service to their client populations, they need data that has been verified as correct. Safeguards should be in place to ensure accuracy in social work big data.
  • Data can cause unintended consequences: Desouza and Smith mention an example of unintended consequences in their article: Journalists at The Journal News in New York obtained data on registered gun owners in three New York counties and published a map their names and addresses. Although the reporters used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the data, they quickly realized that criminals could easily use it to burglarize homes without guns or to steal guns for use in future crimes.

Big Data in Social Work: The End Goal

As the use of data science in social work improves, social workers will be able to communicate more effectively through the use of data-driven charts, graphs, and other visual media.

Researchers Oscar Cariceo, Murali Nair, and Jay Lytton say in their Sage Journals paper, “Data Science for Social Work Practice,” that “the data science approach [deploys] six key activities that include data exploration and preparation, involving cleaning data and manipulating it for further analysis, data representation and transformation, computing data, predictive data modeling, data visualization and presentation, and finally, ‘the science about data science,’ which implies a reflection about what would not work in data science.”

Big data is beginning to change the landscape of the social work industry. In “Harnessing Big Data for Social Good: A Grand Challenge for Social Work” on, Claudia J. Coulton, et al., point out that the government, private social work non-profits, and international organizations will soon benefit from incorporating data science into the social sphere. The pace of discoveries is speeding up and policy is now better informed by continuous data feedback loops.

To maximize the benefits of big data in social work, however, social workers should be familiar with data-based social work resources because the field is expected to become increasingly data-friendly in the near future.

About Ohio University’s Online Master of Social Work

Ohio University’s online master’s in social work degree program can prepare graduates for a career in social work. Social workers help vulnerable populations handle life’s challenges in areas that include marriage and family therapy, foster care counseling, crisis counseling, and human resources.

The MSW program, which is offered through the university’s College of Health Sciences and Professions, is 100% online and does not require a GRE for admission.

Additional Reading

Steps for Becoming a Social Worker
Important Social Work Job Skills

Sources:, The Perils of Prediction
Forbes, Another Side of Big Data
Stanford Social Innovation Review, Big Data for Social Innovation
Sage Journals, Data Science for Social Work Practice