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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

THE FUTURE OF PUBLIC SERVICES: Built on an Open-Source Public Service Platform

“Why don’t we create a collaborative model of healthcare?” – Don Tapscott

 January 12, 2010 – a 7.0 magnitude earthquake shakes Haiti to the bone, reducing weak infrastructure to rubble, wiping out 220,000+ lives and putting the fate of a nation in question.  Worse earthquakes had hit other populated areas in recent memory, without the same degree of impact.  What led to Haiti's particular tragedy combined a lack of planning with selfish interests that saw sub-standard buildings erected in the first place.  The absence of proper maps and census data only made a potential response plan ever harder to develop.

Ironically, it was an altruistic, coordinated effort by the international community that stepped in to address the crisis.  The resources of UN agencies, USAID, individual donors from Japan, school groups in Europe and countless other sources in Canada and around the world was largely coordinated through open-source, online maps and crowdsourcing. 

An Ushahidi-based open source platform became the hub around which government and Not-For-Profit agencies were able to interact in a planned, coordinated way to connect the people of Haiti with the services and resources they needed.  A person stuck in a collapsed building could send a text to a friend, who could pass it on to an appropriate official, which would then be coordinated through a central point in the States to get the right people and resources on the ground in Port-au-Prince to go where they were needed.  Someone moved to make a donation after watching footage of the devastation on the evening news could access the system in the same way, learning the best opportunities to contribute and putting their offering into the mix.

The Haiti experience gives a great example of how an online, Open-Source Public Service Platform can provide an opportunity to transform the existing social service model into something adapted to the realities of the 21st Century.

Think about it – there is broad concern that social services cost too much and that much of that cost is lost to inefficiencies.  It’s like using an old light bulb – little of the energy used actually gets translated into illumination.  Services aren’t always provided where they are needed, or aren’t as accessible as they should be, or people simply don’t know the right entry point to reach those services.  Countless paid hours are spent by government employees trying to help frustrated clients find the specific service they need – and that’s before you add barriers like transportation access, language/cultural barriers, wheelchair/stroller accessibility, etc.

Inefficiencies, cost, access challenges.  You can add to this increased wait times as people struggle to find appropriate services, or end up needing advanced services because they were unable or un-empowered to connect with the right front-end services before an issue emerged.  Also worth mentioning is the recent federal contraction on census data collected and the broad social concerns around accountability and customer service within the public sector.

All these can be problems of the past, thanks to crowdsourcing – and the solution can be realized in a way that doesn’t add to the tax burden.  Again, that solution is an Open-Source Public Service Platform.

A quick example of what the benefit of an integrated, open-source online social service platform would look like: a First Generation Canadian living wherever, trying to find out how to diagnose and treat an ailment in her non-English speaking, wheelchair-bound mother -- could use an App on her phone to narrow down her search and tailor results to include the language and transportation need components.  The search results would include phone numbers for the service providers and a broader coordinating entity, for example a LHIN.  The lady would be able to find and connect her mom with the specific help she needs and how to get to it with a few clicks on a blackberry.

How would you begin to build something of such complexity and magnitude?  Wouldn’t the cost be preventative?  Nope – that’s the advantage of crowdsourcing.  If one central entity – ideally, government – were to provide the basic digital infrastructure (the Ushahidi model is already established and is freely available, and RIM is probably looking for work that could include adapting it for this purpose), the various players involved would organically populate the rest.  A detailed map would be a great, free tool for gaining statistical data, developing broad understandings of service distribution and need (facilitating planning and reducing duplication, gaps and overlaps) and provide opportunities for oversight that would find the right balance through sheer volume.

Service providers inputting their data into the map could use a template form to know which pieces to populate their corner with.  This would include things like address, broad service category, specific service category, accessibility, languages spoken, contact information, etc.  Each entry would have a comments section with an aggregated customer service satisfaction indicator.  When public transit, doctor’s offices, social service offices, etc. plug their information into the map, it would be an easy matter of using an App on a phone or a computer to connect with the right search terms and cross-reference them for proximity, availability and so on.  A secured level of use could record all the data that helps government plan funding allocation and public need in a way only dreamed of now.

We’re already starting to do this by recording wait times in hospitals or results in schools; a public service platform is simply the next logical step.  The Government of Ontario has taken a huge leap forward through a Social Innovation Summit hosted by SiG@MaRS and by launching a wiki allowing Ontarians to participate in the world’s first crowd-sourced policy paper.  The Ontario Liberal Party learned from Facebook and created FRed, creating an online community for members and those interested in learning more.

This same principle can take advantage of the growing connectivity in our society in countless other ways; you could use an open source map to plan your next vacation, if tourist-service providers sign up, or to find new employees/help transition ones that don’t fit without needing to fire them.

Here’s an example of what such a map could look like, using fair trade as an example.

The challenges of today are steering us in one clear direction – collaboration.  The only way to face our current economic, health and quality-of-life woes is to find efficiencies in service – not by cutting the offerings themselves, but by ensuring they are properly coordinated.  An Open-Source Public Service Platform is the perfect tool to make this happen.

1 comment:


    And the private citizens will lead...