UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, defend their rights, and help them fulfill their potential. Faced with an ever-evolving global child protection landscape and ever-increasing child protection needs, the organization wanted to expand the adoption of Primero—its case management tool. The new Primero X is now a digital, open-source case management tool that delivers a streamlined Azure-based platform as a progressive web application and software as a service (SaaS). Built with leading edge security features, Primero X helps improve data collection, allows case workers to be truly mobile and advances best practices for child protection services.

Not long ago, a child in Accra, Ghana’s capital, accidentally became separated from their family. Case workers with the government jumped into action, undertaking a search to locate relatives among Accra’s more than 2 million residents. The mission: to ensure the child could swiftly return home

Kingsley Agordo, a case manager in the Greater Accra Region, alternated between checking in on the child in the hospital, reaching out to community contacts, and coordinating outreach to the media. Before long, he helped locate the child’s family and reunite them.

“The satisfaction I get when I see smiles on people’s faces is what keeps me going through the challenges they are facing, and the challenges we case workers face,” Agordo says.

Agordo is just one of thousands of social workers who use Primero, a case management tool provided by UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, to connect clients to needed supports.

UNICEF works in more than 190 countries and territories to save children’s lives, defend their rights, and help them fulfil their potential, from early childhood through adolescence. This includes work with partners to promote policies and expand access to vital social services that protect children from violence, exploitation, and abuse. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this mission has never been more vital.

Innovation is at the heart of UNICEF’s ability to achieve results for children and young people. For decades, UNICEF has developed effective, evidence-based solutions and adapted them to local circumstances. The organization uses this approach with technology, too, to protect and promote the human rights of children, especially the most disadvantaged.

The Azure-based platform has already helped social workers like Agordo and many others to reach more than 100,000 vulnerable children in 28 countries and territories. UNICEF, Microsoft, and Quoin, a software firm leading the development of Primero, have streamlined the platform as a web application and software as a service (SaaS). As a result, staff on the ground are poised to serve even more.

“This digital tool is going to revolutionize case management,” says Cornelius Williams, UNICEF associate director and chief of child protection. He explains that the tool will allow governmental agencies and other partners to focus time and funding on services instead of IT; deploy more quickly in humanitarian crises; improve the quality and consistency of care to vulnerable groups; and protect the privacy of at-risk children.

The new version of Primero is currently being piloted in Ghana, with expected releases in dozens of other countries through 2022. UNICEF aims to have Primero live in 60 countries by 2025.

As Williams says, “The partnership between UNICEF and Microsoft will help strengthen the Primero platform and scale it up to benefit millions of vulnerable children and young people, both now and in the future.”

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Adapting to meet urgent needs

UNICEF began developing Primero in 2014 in partnership with Quoin and has been rolling it out since 2015. Faced with an ever-evolving global child protection landscape and ever-increasing child protection needs, the organization wanted to expand the adoption of this digital tool. Several challenges limited its widespread use, though.

UNICEF shouldered much of the expense of deploying each instance and maintaining the on-premise infrastructure to keep it running.

To do so, an expert had to travel to the location to set up Primero on-site, a requirement that was costly, time-intensive, and difficult in terms of security. These conditions also slowed down deploying a new instance, a delay that felt especially frustrating in fast-changing emergencies such as a tsunami or the mass displacement of populations due to armed conflicts. More recently, the challenge has been in meeting the demands associated with COVID-19.

With the old version of Primero, each instance became its own, isolated solution. So when IT staff wanted to make an improvement to the platform, they had to fix each of the 35 iterations in use.

UNICEF, working with the development team from Quoin, originally built the first version of Primero as both a mobile application and a web app. “We had to do everything twice,” which drained IT resources, explains Pavel Nabutovsky, a technology for development lead who heads the Primero project for Quoin. “It was difficult to scale at any level.”

A collaboration between UNICEF, Microsoft, and Quoin created the opportunity to address all these obstacles—and put a user-friendly, effective tool in the hands of more social workers.

Using “modern technology to serve vulnerable children”

UNICEF and Microsoft launched a global partnership in 2018 to pool and complement one another’s expertise, resources, leadership, and advocacy to help displaced and vulnerable children and young people. Together, they are leveraging technology to further their mutual commitment to a sustainable future for all children and young people.

UNICEF looked at the support for the Primero X open source stack components across cloud platforms, together with the additional services that would be needed to develop a SaaS offering, such as identity, security, automation and observability. Sebastian Bania, Primero platform lead for UNICEF, found that Azure was “a compelling choice, and one with which our team had valuable experience.”

Additionally, UNICEF was committed to developing an open-source tool so others could build on or adapt the solution to meet their needs, and Azure supported the technologies and standards common throughout the industry.

UNICEF and Quoin began working with the Microsoft Commercial Software Engineering (CSE) team to build out a new version, called Primero X. They decided to create it as a web app and software as a service (SaaS) to help UNICEF and partners save on costs while enabling on-the-ground workers to more easily use the tool in the field.

“Working with CSE was a key element of this project’s success,” Bania says. “Their creative, out-of-the-box thinking advanced not only the SaaS platform and core Primero platform; they also helped us improve our own engineering practices.”

The result: an intuitive platform that meets a critical demand in the field.

“When we work with Microsoft, it’s about lifting up the cause of child protection,” Williams says. “I felt like Microsoft was asking, ‘How can modern technology serve vulnerable children?’”

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Building trust and spending more time with children

Williams calls social workers and case managers “heroes, frontline workers, and defenders” who work tirelessly to provide children and young people access to lifesaving services and protection. Technology is enabling that calling. “Digitizing case management drastically reduces the procedural work, like filling out forms and then moving those files from one location to another,” Williams continues.

The beauty of a well-designed digital case management tool is that social workers don’t need a background in technology to use it. The back-end architecture of Primero X is largely invisible to the average user and constructed to create a secure, accessible way to document case progress. The new Primero X, which is built in Azure Block Storage orchestrated with the open-source container management application Kubernetes, replaces analog systems common among social service agencies around the world.

“This brings down the number of hours spent on paperwork on every case,” Williams says.

Social workers can use Primero—both the progressive web app and the SaaS—on a mobile device in the field. This immediacy reduces the time it takes to get a new case registered and connect children to needed supports.

“It makes my work easier,” Agordo says—testament to the platform’s many iterations refined with social worker feedback. The tool takes users through a flow to populate required fields and assess the level of risk the child faces, which helps managers triage cases. The tool also repopulates information in each case entry so social workers don’t have to re-enter the same details, such as names and birth dates.

With as many cases as a typical social worker handles, these efficiencies translate to a lot of time freed up to focus on the needs of at-risk children. Increasing face time with clients helps social workers earn the trust of those who have experienced violence, abuse, or neglect, such as a survivor of gender-based violence, Williams says. “Building trust is cardinal. It shows clients that our mission is to protect them.”

The security and protection of a child’s right to privacy within the case management tool builds confidence among clients and case workers alike. The Primero platform has finely tuned permissions access, which provides “very conditional, limited, need-to-know access to data and data sharing,” says Nabutovsky. Users know data is kept confidential, leading to widespread adoption of the tool. The most recent version also includes tighter standards inspired by the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the European Union law that has since become the global standard for data privacy.

“Security is crucial for UNICEF and our partners,” says Bania. “By leveraging some of the services within Azure, we share the responsibility of platform management with Microsoft, which eases some of our resource commitment. This applies to things as critical as security configuration and patching.”

Advanced Azure security services give UNICEF IT staff peace of mind. Tools such as Azure Sentinel enable UNICEF to detect and react to threats before they cause harm.

UNICEF also worked with Microsoft to ensure case workers can work confidently. This gives them the freedom to be truly mobile, carrying relevant case files with them whether working from home or in the community. This has proven extremely valuable as social workers adapt to social distancing and other efforts to contain COVID-19.

Improving quality and consistency of care

There is a lot at stake for getting social work right, Williams says. “Effective case management helps prevent additional trauma and harm, and it supports front-line workers to reunite families. It can be a matter of life or death.”

Primero is helping improve the quality of that care wherever it is used. First of all, it reduces errors, which can place barriers between clients and the care they need. For example, a busy social worker may accidentally mis-enter a client’s age but correctly input their birthday. On a paper form, that mistake would live on in the record; thanks to the automatic checks of the Azure-based tool, that issue would be flagged—and could then be corrected.

“Primero improves the quality of data collection immediately,” Williams says. He explains that this saves managers countless hours of reviewing and correcting case files.

What’s more, new hires learn the ropes more quickly because they simply follow the tool’s flows, which are customized to local needs. Built-in checkpoints won’t allow workers to forget or skip required fields, which improves consistency in the records.

Agordo points out that he and other social workers often juggle many cases, and “the reminders in Primero help us manage that workload.” The updated tool alerts them to needed follow-up based on past actions, like checking in on a child living in family-based care. The time between actions is standardized so case workers consistently keep up with necessary steps—and so a child’s needs aren’t lost in a pile of files.

“This digital trail makes case management auditable and puts our field on a path of continuous improvement,” Williams says, so leadership can spot issues—and course-correct when needed. So if case workers are missing follow-ups, for example, managers can retrain workers. The concrete data also helps agencies advocate for additional funds or staff to further support the protection of children and young people.

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Raising standards of care worldwide

Nabutovsky calls Primero a “digital public good” not only because it’s an open-source tool but also because it advances best practices for child protection services and other social work. “Primero gives UNICEF the chance to disseminate the most effective approaches to delivering child protection programming,” he says.

For example, Primero is built with leading-edge security features, which replace pencil-and-paper systems for records—and greatly increase security. Bania explains that improved data collection can lead to other goals that ultimately improve conditions for children, such as the development of evidence-based policies and collaboration with academia as well as partner organizations.

While improved data collection serves as an essential component of successful programming, such data-driven approaches require the collection, transmission, storage, and sharing of personal information. Mitigating the mishandling of data and promoting a culture of responsible data practice is imperative to protect children. To this end, UNICEF and partners launched the Responsible Data for Children (RD4C) initiative to strengthen data privacy and promote best practice in data responsibility.

“UNICEF has a vast array of knowledge and experience protecting children’s rights,” says Bania. “Primero allows us to encode part of that know-how into software.”

Scaling to reach more children

Armed conflict, natural disasters, and other emergencies expose millions of children and young people to violence, exploitation, abuse, and neglect. Unfortunately, such humanitarian crises are unlikely to end anytime soon and will continue to create conditions where children need help. Fast.

With the new web app, IT staff can configure a custom version for less cost and deploy it in as little as 20 minutes—compared to the two to three weeks it took in the past.

One factor in this lightning-fast deployment: “Relying on Azure services rather than local organizations storing and maintaining their own instances,” Bania says. Running Primero as a SaaS shifts the work of making updates and maintaining security to the UNICEF/Quoin team rather than the resource-strapped governmental agencies and other partners using the platform.

Primero contains ready-made templates, such as for rapid onset emergencies or a public health crisis, calibrated with the input of organizations such as the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A single email to the UNICEF team can request a new instance as well as modifications to a template, such as local languages. “We baked templating into Primero so you don’t have to start from scratch every time,” Nabutovsky says. The hours saved could translate into lives saved on the ground.

Upkeep is now easier, too. Instead of making an update or change to every one of the deployed instances, as they had to before, staff can make a single change to the centralized platform. Localized instances then automatically upgrade, freeing the IT team to focus on bigger picture projects that advance the organization’s mission to work for the rights of every child, every day, across the globe.

“As we increase the number of countries using the upgraded Primero, more children will be served,” says Williams. “The scale of impact is revolutionary. This is a matter of social justice.”

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UNICEF does not endorse any brand, service or product. For more information visit: https://www.primero.org/

All Photo credit: @UNICEFRMacTavish