I spend a fair amount of time at Open Source conferences. I arrive with a government bias plus some of the great ideas that open source enables like transparency and open government. Although most panels/sessions/talks/round tables will eventually get around to the idea of education and work force training, I rarely see anyone responsible for actually delivering or receiving that training at these events.
I recently participated in POSSCON, the 3rd annual Palmetto Open Source Software Convention, hosted in South Carolina capitol city of Columbia. My experience with this community was inspiring and I think it can serve as a lesson for many.
During an executive panel discussion the moderator, Matt Asay, asked me to give an example of a government open source project. I described (in layman’s terms) the information challenge in health care, the increasing use of open-standards and open source, and its potential to improve interoperability in health care systems. I also cited the U.S. Health and Human Services’ CONNECT project as a great example of using the open source development and community methodology.
Afterward I was approached by several people who told me “We really couldn’t get what the panel was talking about until you started talking about open source and Health IT as a real example – then we got it.” Open source had little tangible value to this group until it was described in context. What is the impact to a patient when their health care records are incomplete? When their information is scattered between physicians, pharmacies, immediate care centers, rest homes, dentists offices, and hospital emergency rooms? When those systems are not designed to work together? When they understand how open source can help solve these problems, they “get it.”
Twenty students from the South Carolina Rehabilitation Center were there. Their stories were impressive. One student’s career as an LVN had ended with an accident so she was retraining in health information technology. I introduced her to a medical clinic open source entrepreneur from Atlanta that was going to need subject matter expert. Another student’s goal was to open a shelter for homeless vets. We talked about Virginia’s Veteran’s Affairs open-API community portal work – where the community of veterans help an understaffed VA get through paperwork and identify resources for returning vets. She’s now interested in doing the same thing in South Carolina. A third student with a degree in Health Informatics learned about HHS’ electronic health record project, CONNECT. Every discussion included opportunities to leverage open source, and a great desire to improve people’s lives.
The opportunity for open source in health IT is immediately apparent in every niche of that industry. I recently learned my own dentist used open source software to run his clinic! In government, we see this opportunity in the Health and Human Services’ national health information network architecture, in the National Cancer Institute’s research, the way the Social Security Administration handles sensitive health records, and the way the Veteran’s Administration runs hospitals. In a clinical setting, state and local government can expect citizens to be better served through Electronic Health Records services and improved patient care — particularly for under-served communities. The most exciting development is with Personal Health Records, consumer-based patient-centric information that will empower individuals to master their own health care (a topic for another post).
Back to the event itself; interdisciplinary and cross-industry events can be tricky to make successful but can be super-conductors for innovation. The challenge is that different audiences have varying interests and attention spans. Blended audiences, especially Columbia’s with representation from education, business, government and technology, need facilitation if interaction is the goal. POSSCON organizers did a great job of building a strong program that had something for everyone and in a format designed to converge everyone’s interests. POSSCON was a great example of how valuable face-to-face events such as this can be, even though collaboration can be happening every day virtually. Having everyone in a room is critical to inspiring, coalescing, creating and sustaining motion.
I once read that the complexity of today’s problems can only be solved by teams of people who do not naturally work together. Open source software and the kind of thinking and collaboration used to create it provides a framework to solve some of the thorniest and most interesting problems around. I think POSSCON is a wonderful example of this in bringing industry, government and education together under one well-pitched big tent.