The Tribe Project

– Harnessing AI and Smart Cities technology to tackle care inequality

Many of the challenges we face as a society require the same spirit of enterprise and creativity seen in the commercial sector to be brought to bear in the public and voluntary sector. A great example is what Richard Howells and his team are doing with the Tribe Project, which is about applying big data to one of the biggest challenges we face – the workforce crisis in social care.

Based in rural Shropshire on the English-Welsh border, it all started when he found himself struggling to secure adequate care for loved ones. The experience alerted him to the fact that many parts of the country are effectively “care gaps” as far as care provision is concerned: too remote or sparsely populated for conventional means of delivery of care and support to people living in their own homes – so-called domiciliary care – to be economically viable.

Howells felt he needed to do something. He had a background in data analytics. Through his company Bronze Labs he also had a wealth of experience applying smart city technologies to a range of problems faced by government, cities and other large organisations. 

His instinct was to see what would happen when he and his team tried to apply the same AI and machine learning techniques to the problem. He was intrigued to see what patterns might emerge once they had been able to pool the available data on need and skills and analyse by locality and category of need. He and his team started knitting together data from multiple sources such as censuses, adult social care and health statistics to identify care gaps and even start predicting where they were likely to emerge or deepen. 

Simultaneously, they saw they could also access data to identify what was available in terms of skills in each locality. They began looking not just as what was available from existing providers, but also voluntary groups, charities and even individuals who might be able to offer skills that were needed, but otherwise in short supply.

What began to emerge was something far more ambitious- but also genuinely ground breaking – in terms of what it could deliver. Working with local government, which has statutory responsibility for care in its area, Howells began to map a detailed knowledge of what was needed where and what was available. 

Analysing the results, he quickly realised that there were untapped resources on the ground; volunteers, part-timers, retired care workers who with the right training and right incentives could be mobilised to fill in the gaps in provision. Training packages could be delivered on a mobile app or online portal to equip workers to upskill; to help plug gaps for particular categories of need in a locality such as dementia support or transport. 

Care workers who had knowledge and skills, but no experience managing teams or running a business, could be helped to set themselves up as small scale and highly nimble support providers, which in turn would provide a boost to the local economy.

Although funded in the initial stages by Richard and his team at Bronze Labs, he knew that to succeed it needed to find a pathway to scale sustainably. Working with a consortium of experienced partners from the care sector, they entered Innovate UK’s Healthy Ageing Challenge. Selected as a trailblazer project, which entitled Tribe to share in a £23m pot, Tribe’s life-changing potential was starting to get noticed. A flood of accolades followed. Howells himself was named Tech Entrepreneur of the Year, Tech4Good Entrepreneur. He was invited to both Buckingham Palace and No10 in recognition of his work.

Tribe is now commissioned and scaling in a number of integrated care systems including Surrey, Essex, North Yorkshire, East Sussex and Warwickshire, and is looking for opportunities abroad, where governments and social services face similar challenges; ageing populations with complex needs which existing structures struggle to meet.

The work so far has demonstrated that with better tools and better data, health and social care systems can make national savings in the hundreds of millions of pounds, and at the same time improve the level of care and help the local economy. They can offer more flexible, better tailored care packages that genuinely meet the needs of each individual. Because they can tap into multi-providers including micro-businesses that they have encouraged to enter the care market, they are able, says Howells, to offer blended models of support, rather than the standardised care packages that the big care operators provide. 

UKRI funding has given The Tribe Project a three-year runway to continue development. Howells recognises the funding challenge to local authorities and health systems particularly in home care commissioning. He highlighted Tribe will ultimately be able to scale across the UK without the support of the public purse or venture capital within a model which also pays those delivering care significantly more.

For all apparent success, Howells is frustrated that they haven’t been able to move more quickly.  Social care commissioners, who are responsible for allocating social care budgets within their region are innately conservative. While The Tribe Project has been feted by ministers and parliamentarians, Howells would like to see things move much faster.

That Britain’s care system is in crisis is no secret. Successive governments have tried and failed to come up with a solution, and COVID has only made things worse. “There is a shortfall of 165,000 carers in this country and an industry attrition rate of 30%.”

“There isn’t a funding gap. There is circa £40bn available in this country to pay for care. The problem isn’t a shortage of money but how it is leveraged to achieve positive outcomes.” Howells is convinced that wider and more rapid take up could make a serious dent on the so-called postcode lottery in social care. “I am an idealist,” says Howells. But without radical ideas like Tribe that challenge the status quo, it is hard to see how we can have a hope of tackling the care crisis we face.



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