Back in 1958, the groundbreaking ‘Brooklands Experiment’, conducted by New Zealand psychologist Professor Jack Tizard in Reigate, UK, compared the progress of children with a learning disability living in a hospital with those moved to a home-like, family living environment.
After two years, the latter group showed marked improvements in social, emotional and verbal skills. The findings were published around the world and have been a huge influence on the way that children with learning disabilities have been educated, supported and cared for over the intervening six decades.
The charity behind the Brooklands Experiment was Mencap, although back then, it was called the National Society for Mentally Handicapped Children. Today, Mencap continues to support people with a learning disability and campaign for their rights, and there’s an increasing digital element to that work, according to Zac Taylor, Head of Practice Strategy and Design, who has worked for the charity for almost 23 years. As he explains:
My job is about designing how we work with people with a learning disability and a big part of that is looking for ways of working that mean we can spend as much time as possible actually interacting with a person, rather than entering data into devices or filling out paperwork.
Invite to a hackathon
Mencap has a lot of work still to do here, he says, so when he was recently invited to submit an idea for a new application for a hackathon, he had plenty of options. The invitation came from Mendix, which supplies the low-code, rapid application development platform that Mencap has already used to build several new digital apps. One of these is called ‘What Matters Most’ and enables support workers to log details of their interactions with each client; another is a property app that helps the charity manage the buildings it owns, leases or provides services at, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
At the Mendix On Tour UK event, held in London in July, teams of developers got to work on a new ‘Positive Behavior Support’ app for Mencap. Taking part in the hackathon was a win-win prospect for the charity, according to Scott Markham, its Head of Business Improvement:
The worst case scenario was that we would simply get more awareness out there around who Mencap is and what we do - but the best case scenario was that we were going to see an app developed for us, one that we haven’t got at the moment, around Positive Behavior Support, with the option to bring that app back into the business and really figure out whether it totally supports our needs, or needs to be adapted, and what we might learn from it.
Mencap works directly with around 4,300 people with a learning disability. Around one in four of them use challenging behavior (which can include emotional outbursts, violence and self-harming), and when they do, it’s often as a result of finding it difficult to express their wants and needs, Taylor explains. He’s a trained PBS coach himself, qualified to use this internationally recognized framework for helping people develop new, alternative, more positive skills so that they don’t need to revert to challenging behaviors in the future. That involves data collection, he adds, because it’s an evidence-based way of working.
On the day of the hackathon, participants drawn from Mendix customers and consulting partners were given an overview of PBS by Taylor, some case studies and some information on the types of processes that it involves. Taylor was also available to answer any questions on the day, which saw seven teams tackle the challenge of designing a PBS app, with an average of four people per team.
The products they came up with at the end of the day-long challenge were judged by representatives from both Mendix and Mencap, based on how well they’d used the Mendix platform and understood the use case, how good their products looked and how well they functioned. The top three were then asked to present their application to a team from Mencap and a winner was picked from that shortlist.
The winning team was a group from First Consulting, who designed a people-focused app to enable carers to create plans, log incidents and show key performance indicators (KPIs) relating to improvements in behavior. Strong visualisation techniques were used in the app for presenting data back to users and the team had also brought in natural language processing (NLP) to offer voice-to-text functionality, in line with that idea that what Mencap really wants to be doing is maximising its time with the people it supports, not toiling away at smartphones and laptops. Says Markham:
The winning team had most closely grasped what we were trying to get out of this exercise. All three had produced a very good application by the end of the day, but First Consulting were probably the team that had taken the most time to really understand our needs. Their application had a good look and feel and was very clearly centred on driving and reinforcing positive behavior in the people we support. Obviously, it’s a bit of fun on the day - but the main thing for us was to get some really good ideas and think about how we can take those back into our organization and develop them further.
Mencap has since met with the winning team, he adds, and now has the winning product to explore further. First Consulting has also contributed some additional ideas on how the product might be improved, beyond the time limitations of the 8-hour hackathon. From there, Mencap will be consulting with PBS coaches and support workers to get their views on how the PBS app should work and how training might best be given to users. Finally, Mencap will also be looking into how this new app will fit in terms of look, feel and function with other applications in its portfolio.
For Taylor, the biggest advantage of using Mendix is that it offers a fast way for the charity to build out systems that fit with its overriding philosophy of offering truly personalized support that changes individual lives:
Other [commercially available] systems I’ve seen focus very much on a person’s needs, but not necessarily the person themself. That’s not how we work. Our focus is on quality of life in a much broader sense. Our relationships with the people we support often last for many, many years and we want to know about their wants, wishes and goals - who a person really is and what they want to achieve. That’s where our technology needs to focus, and I’m not sure we would get that if we were buying a system from someone else.