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A Connection Through the Cloud to Important Life Documents: The Electronic Backpack and Crossover Youth



A Connection Through the Cloud to Important Life Documents: The Electronic Backpack and Crossover Youth

Nasser H

This blog was co-produced by our Senior Program Director, McCrae Parker, and originally posted on Health Affairs Blog. The "Electronic Backpack" is a supplement guide that works within our #Mobile4Impact Series developed in collaboration with Vodafone Americas and Sierra Health Foundation. The Mobile4Impact Series build upon Funding Mobile Strategies for Social Impact,  our previous research to leverage mobile interventions in underserved communities and captures new insights from the field.

by McCrae Parker

Over the past year, ZeroDivide has collaborated with Sierra Health Foundation to serve as a thought partner in the integration of technology into the foundation’s Positive Youth Justice Initiative, which aims to create a major shift in California’s juvenile justice practice and policy at the county level. The initiative focuses on crossover youth—that is, young people with histories of neglect, abuse, trauma, and engagement in the child welfare system, who currently are involved with county juvenile justice systems.

As part of our exploration of promising practices in the use of technology in the juvenile justice and child welfare systems, we discovered the “electronic backpacks.”

The central idea behind the electronic backpack is that a youth’s important life documents, medical records, and program reports “live” on an easily accessible, secure, “cloud” system. For crossover youth, the design, use, and adoption of the electronic backpack concept can potentially lead to better coordinated services and outcomes. Mobile technology provides a greater level of access to critical intervention and service records for youth, their families, and their friends or supportive adults.

Despite all best intentions, when youth leave the foster care system as adults, they are typically only given a sheaf of papers that detail their complicated histories. These records are easily lost and usually incomplete, which often creates burdens these young adults must carry for life.
— Wendy Lazarus, Founder & Co-President of the Children's Partnership

Crossover youth are in particular need because of interaction with two systems (child welfare and juvenile justice), and the delay and withholding of services that they may experience without specific documents. For example, a youth who arrives at a new group home placement may have difficulty registering at his or her new school without vaccination records. With an electronic backpack, this issue can be eliminated.

The electronic backpack could also relieve the problem of lack of access to important intervention and service records, which families and crossover youth often face. It potentially can make processes of interacting between multiple service providers much more transparent and navigable.

Opportunity for Impact

The electronic backpack has been deployed for several years by a number of school districts in California as a means to connect students, parents, and teachers to critical information and records about student progress and development. While many of these uses rely on computer-based access through a web portal, a number have moved to offer access through mobile devices in response to emerging patterns of adoption for mobile phones.

ZeroDivide’s observations, field work, and review of research on mobile technologies led to four factors that have implications for the electronic backpack and its use among crossover youth populations:

1) Smartphone adoption among American youth and young adults has increased substantially, and mobile access to the Internet is pervasive: 73 percent of teens have access to a mobile phone, and 91 percent of that group go online using their mobile device “at least occasionally.” (Source: Pew Research Center, 2015)

2) Mobile access to the Internet is common among American youth, and the cell phone has become an especially important access point for certain groups: Youth in lower socioeconomic groups are just as likely, and in some cases more likely, than those living in higher-income and more highly educated households to use their cell phone as a primary point of access.

3) Evidence shows that there are distinct opportunities for mobile technology to have unprecedented effects on interactive sharing, learning, and engagement. Nowhere is this potential more evident than in texting programs designed to address social determinants of health in vulnerable youth communities. Text, Talk, Act is an example of a strategy that uses text messaging to educate and empower consumers.

4) The use of new digital media is a rapidly evolving, promising strategy for improving adolescent sexual health, according to a recent systematic review, by Kylene Guse and coauthors, of the use of new digital media (that is, the Internet, text messaging/mobile, and social networking sites) as a tool for engaging youth in sexual health promotion and risk reduction.

Highlighted Project: HealthShack

While there is a dearth of mobile applications developed specifically for crossover youth, there are several innovative attempts at using the electronic backpack or aligned technology solutions to assist foster youth and their friends or supportive adults with accessing critical information and resources.

In 2009, the California Wellness Foundation and Sierra Health Foundation funded the HealthShack program, which was founded by FollowMe CEO Cynthia Solomon. (This funding supported development of the basic functionality of the technology and supported the staff who implemented the program.) Based at Wind Youth Services in Sacramento, California, the program sought to affect foster youth who are transitioning out of foster care and are between the ages of 18 and 20. At the technological core of the program was the development of a mobile-friendly app featuring an online database where foster youth can safely store and share their records, while empowering them to take control of their own information, such as health records, education records, birth certificates, Social Security cards, and diplomas.

Sierra Health Foundation and United Healthcare cofunded development (building out) of the technology, and the app is now owned and operated by AltruIT 2.0, a subsidiary of Aspiranet, which specializes in technology for human services.

Looking Forward

Mobile apps hold great promise for crossover youth in the delivery of critical information and services, in large part, because of the increase in mobile device use, decreasing costs, and the high adoption rates of technology by young people. However, for crossover youth seeking information and connections through mobile technologies, closing the broadband and data access gap may be critical to adopting these tools.

ZeroDivide has found that the cost of data and SMS (text messaging) plans, which are often necessary for effective eHealth tools and apps may be prohibitive for people who do not have unlimited data or SMS plans.

A promising practice has been deployed by the text4baby program, where a unique agreement with telecommunications providers makes health and wellness text messages free of charge to mothers who participate.

Generally speaking, the barriers can be addressed so as to decrease the costs of accessing tools for crossover youth. As in areas of eHealth adoption, success will require effective partnerships among nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and the telecommunications firms serving this population.