Ad-Hoc Enquiries: Software and Public Service, Ian Williamson

I had the good fortune of attending the first Ad-Hoc enquiries event, many thanks to Laura Billings. The event, part of a series, brought together a cross-section of people with complementary interests to have dinner and give critical feedback in response to a presentation (or at least that’s how it was organized this first time around).

comments on the structure of the event:
The event had a thoughtful and clearly defined sense of structure:  introductions around the room, the evening’s presentation, a period of informal discussion, followed by formal responses by the guests. The care for small details: lovely dinner and table, posters explaining the structure, scribing/illustrating of the discussion, did a great job of creating a critical yet simultaneously convivial atmosphere. For the response period each guest was given a 3 minute sand timer to clock their time. Guests were also given paddles to draw a smiley face or an X, to expressing their opinion about what other guests were saying. The 3 minute formal response section could have been a bit longer allowing guests to respond to each other, but other than that minor point the structure for the evening worked well.

the topic:
Ian Williamson presented a project in which he and a team of collaborators worked with a group of social workers to develop an custom application to help improve the management and sharing of reports and general information about the different families their work overlap with. The description of the presentation was:

Computer software design can power public service reform. Tech should become more imaginative, liberating practitioners, rather than adding administration.

The methodology Ian described seemed quite collaborative. Rather then creating a system informed by the bureaucratic structures created to manage social workers, they working with the social workers to design a system that reflected the needs of their specific practice.  At the end of the presentation, when I asked Ian if Patchwork was released as an open source project I was surprised to find out that the answer was no. Patchwork at the time of the presentation was set to be sold (presumably to other social workers) as a product.

The Ad Hoc organizers asked the guests to write a 150-200 word response to the evening’s discussion. While I don’t normally take on the role of open source evangelist, in the context of this group discussion I felt the need to make that position heard.

The real message of Patchwork isn’t the application as a product, but the process of engaging public sector workers (and arguable citizens) in developing tools to meet their specific needs. These technologies are not politically neutral. When software systems become the architecture through which governance happens, the systems themselves become the critical point of interrogation. To insure that the transforming of public services is actually for the common good, such systems should be open and part of the creative commons. This concern for open source may seem like a ‘technical’ issue, or trivial when talking about a simple application for social workers to manage and share their reports, but in an era when policy and code become one, the difference between open source versus proprietary may have increasing implications for how power is rendered accountable. Having said all that in my scariest most ominous voice possible, I want to reiterate that the collaborative methodology of how the Patchwork project was developed is fantastic and I hope there are more initiatives like it, they just need to be open source.

Addition things:
Interesting post about the same event by Cath Richardson at Made By Many 


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