(This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)
One of the more time consuming tasks for social workers is identifying resources and services to assist clients, a task streamlined by the ReferMe Mobile Web Application proposed and developed by Nucha Isarowong, AM '02, PhD '16.
He and teammates from the research center Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago were winners of the 2016 UChicago App Challenge, a contest designed to encourage innovation through technology.
"Professionals spend hours calling programs and organizations to ensure the appropriateness of the referral for their clients, confirm the availability of services and resources, and obtain eligibility and payment information," says Isarowong, now an Assistant Professor at the Erikson Institute in Chicago.
Isarowong, who has worked as a public school social worker and an early intervention social-emotional specialist for more than a decade, knows from firsthand experience how quickly social service and resource directories become outdated because material and financial resources run out or services change or cease to be provided. Technology provides an effective way of connecting with resource directories and keeping them current, he said.
The 2016 UChicago App Challenge provided him the opportunity to set his ideas in motion.
As one of 20 semi-finalists, Isarowong contacted Chapin Hall and expanded the ReferMe team to included Mike Stiehl, senior policy analyst and Dana Weiner, policy fellow at Chapin Hall.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services (IDCFS) gave permission to use data from the Statewide Provider Database (SPD), a desktop web-based application developed by Weiner and used by IDCFS case managers.
In June, as a part of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship, and Innovation’s New Venture Challenge culminating event, Isarowong, Stiehl, and Weiner were awarded the $10,000 grand prize for the ReferMe Mobile Web Application in the 2016 UChicago App Challenge.
With continued institutional commitment from Chapin Hall and IDCFS, the prize money will be used to further develop and refine the mobile web application for pilot testing. Once fully functional, ReferMe will change the way social workers provide case management services, such as checking on services and making appointments in the field, he explains.
"This frees up time for the professionals to directly engage with their clients and focus on their work with families," he says.
Isarowong’s work draws praise from Sydney Hans, Samuel Deutsch Professor at SSA, who was chair of his dissertation committee and chair of SSA's doctoral program.
"Throughout his doctoral work, Nucha maintained a strong identity as a social work practitioner, and he now wants to contribute back to the profession through his research. The development of this app shows his deep understanding of the challenges of every-day social work practice,” she says. Isarowong’s work on the new app will facilitate the work of others who share his interest in early childhood interventions.
He developed an interest in working with others while he was a volunteer with high school students as an undergraduate. This led him to graduate school at SSA.
He received an AM in 2002 with a clinical concentration and specialization in school social work. He later transitioned his work to the Illinois Early Intervention program (with the Illinois Department of Human Services) working with families of infants and toddlers with developmental delays and disabilities.
"I found that I needed to know more and returned in 2008 for my doctoral studies," he says. In March 2016, he completed a dissertation examining everyday parental socialization efforts with toddlers in a sample of low-income African American families.
"I enjoyed working with students from pre-K through high school, but realized from my work at the Chicago Public Schools that prevention and early intervention have the potential to alleviate the intensity of services as children get older," he says.
— William Harms