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For our Tuesday, July 27th Salon, we discussed partnerships and interoperability in global health systems. The room housed a wide range of perspectives, from small to large non-governmental organizations to donors and funders to software developers to designers to healthcare professionals to students. Our lead discussants were Josh Nesbit, CEO at Medic Mobile; Jonathan McKay, Global Head of Partnerships and Director of the US Office of Praekelt.org; and Tiffany Lentz, Managing Director, Office of Social Change Initiatives at ThoughtWorks

We started by hearing from our discussants on why they had decided to tackle issues in the area of health. Reasons were primarily because health systems were excluding people from care and organizations wanted to find a way to make healthcare inclusive. As one discussant put it, “utilitarianism has infected global health. A lack of moral imagination is the top problem we’re facing.”

Other challenges include requests for small scale pilots and customization/ bespoke applications, lack of funding and extensive requirements for grant applications, and a disconnect between what is needed on the ground and what donors want to fund. “The amount of documentation to get a grant is ridiculous, and then the system that is requested to be built is not even the system that needs to be made,” commented one person. Another challenge is that everyone is under constant pressure to demonstrate that they are being innovative. [Sidenote: I’m reminded of this post from 2010….] “They want things that are not necessarily in the best interest of the project, but that are seen to be innovations. Funders are often dragged along by that,” noted another person.

The conversation most often touched on the unfulfilled potential of having a working ecosystem and a common infrastructure for health data as well as the problems and challenges that will most probably arise when trying to develop these.

“There are so many uncoordinated pilot projects in different districts, all doing different things,” said one person. “Governments are doing what they can, but they don’t have the funds,” added another, “and that’s why there are so many small pilots happening everywhere.” One company noted that it had started developing a platform for SMS but abandoned it in favor of working with an existing platform instead. “Can we create standards and protocols to tie some of this work together? There isn’t a common infrastructure that we can build on,” was the complaint. “We seem to always start from scratch. I hope donors and organizations get smart about applying pressure in the right areas. We need an infrastructure that allows us to build on it and do the work!” On the other hand, someone warned of the risks of pushing everyone to “jump on a mediocre software or platform just because we are told to by a large agency or donor.”

The benefits of collaboration and partnership are apparent: increased access to important information, more cooperation, less duplication, the ability to build on existing knowledge, and so on. However, though desirable, partnerships and interoperability is not easy to establish. “Is it too early for meaningful partnerships in mobile health? I was wondering if I could say that…” said one person. “I’m not even sure I’m actually comfortable saying it…. But if you’re providing essential basic services, collecting sensitive medical data from patients, there should be some kind of infrastructure apart from private sector services, shouldn’t there?” The question is who should own this type of a mediator platform: governments? MNOs?

Beyond this, there are several issues related to control and ownership. Who would own the data? Is there a way to get to a point where the data would be owned by the patients and demonetized? If the common system is run by the private sector, there should be protections surrounding the patients’ sensitive information. Perhaps this should be a government-run system. Should it be open source?

Open source has its own challenges. “Well… yes. We’ve practiced ‘hopensource’,” said one person (to widespread chuckles).

Another explained that the way we’ve designed information systems has held back shifts in health systems. “When we’re comparing notes and how we are designing products, we need to be out ahead of the health systems and financing shifts. We need to focus on people-centered care. We need to gather information about a person over time and place. About the teams who are caring for them. Many governments we’re working with are powerless and moneyless. But even small organizations can do something. When we show up and treat a government as a systems owner that is responsible to deliver health care to their citizens, then we start to think about them as a partner, and they begin to think about how they could support their health systems.”

One potential model is to design a platform or system such that it can eventually be handed off to a government. This, of course, isn’t a simple idea in execution. Governments can be limited by their internal expertise. The personnel that a government has at the time of the handoff won’t necessarily be there years or months later. So while the handoff itself may be successful in the short term, there’s no firm guarantee that the system will be continually operational in the future. Additionally, governments may not be equipped with the knowledge to make the best decisions about software systems they purchase. Governments’ negotiating capacity must be expanded if they are to successfully run an interoperable system. “But if we can bring in a snazzy system that’s already interoperable, it may be more successful,” said one person.

Having a common data infrastructure is crucial. However, we must also spend some time thinking about what the data itself should look like. Can it be standardized? How can we ensure that it is legible to anyone with access to it?

These are only some of the relevant political issues, and at a more material level, one cannot ignore the technical challenges of maintaining a national scale system. For example, “just getting a successful outbound dialing rate is hard!” said one person. “If you are running servers in Nigeria it just won’t always be up! I think human centered design is important. But there is also a huge problem simply with making these things work at scale. The hardcore technical challenges are real. We can help governments to filter through some of the potential options. Like, can a system demonstrate that it can really operate at massive scale?” Another person highlighted that “it’s often non-profits who are helping to strengthen the capacity of governments to make better decisions. They don’t have money for large-scale systems and often don’t know how to judge what’s good or to be a strong negotiator. They are really in a bind.”

This is not to mention that “the computers have plastic over them half the time. Electricity, computers, literacy, there are all these issues. And the TelCo infrastructure! We have layers of capacity gaps to address,” said one person.

There are also donors to consider. They may come into a project with unrealistic expectations of what is normal and what can be accomplished. There is a delicate balance to be struck between inspiring the donors to take up the project and managing expectations so that they are not disappointed.” One strategy is to “start hopeful and steadily temper expectations.” This is true also with other kinds of partnerships. “Building trust with organizations so that when things do go bad, you can try to manage it is crucial. Often it seems like you don’t want to be too real in the first conversation. I think, ‘if I lay this on them at the start it can be too real and feel overwhelming.…'” Others recommended setting expectations about how everyone together is performing. “It’s more like, ‘together we are going to be looking at this, and we’ll be seeing together how we are going to work and perform together.”

Creating an interoperable data system is costly and time-consuming, oftentimes more so than donors and other stakeholders imagine, but there are real benefits. Any step in the direction of interoperability must deal with challenges like those considered in this discussion. Problems abound. Solutions will be harder to come by, but not impossible.

So, what would practitioners like to see? “I would like to see one country that provides an incredible case study showing what good partnership and collaboration looks like with different partners working at different levels and having a massive impact and improved outcomes. Maybe in Uganda,” said one person. “I hope we see more of us rally around supporting and helping governments to be the system owners. We could focus on a metric or shared cause – I hope in the near future we have a view into the equity measure and not just the vast numbers. I’d love to see us use health equity as the rallying point,” added another. From a different angle, one person felt that “from a for-profit, we could see it differently. We could take on a country, a clinic or something as our own project. What if we could sponsor a government’s health care system?”

A participant summed the Salon up nicely: “I’d like to make a flip-side comment. I want to express gratitude to all the folks here as discussants. This is one of the most unforgiving and difficult environments to work in. It’ SO difficult. You have to be an organization super hero. We’re among peers and feel it as normal to talk about challenges, but you’re really all contributing so much!”

Salons are run under Chatham House Rule so not attribution has been made in this post. If you’d like to attend a future Salon discussion, join the list at Technology Salon.

 

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This is a guest post from Jamie Narkunski, who works as a UX consultant at ThoughtWorks NYC.

by Jamie Narkunski

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Photo from ThoughtWorks.

I recently attended a Tech Salon where the subject of grant applications came up.  Part of the conversation revolved around the issue that the complexity, format, and investment required in the traditional grant application process acts as a barrier for organizations that lack the resources or experience needed to complete the process in a competitive manner, leading to the exclusion or weeding out of potential target applicants in some cases.

The conversation made me think of a recent grant I was a part of:  The Digital Prototype Opportunity.  ThoughtWorks partnered with Parsons New School and Blue Ridge Foundation to host a grant for $100k in funds + $350k worth of development work. The grant was split across two winners. The grant application was open to organizations who had an existing social impact innovation but wanted to use technology to extend and/or deepen their impact in their social space.

Because there were organizations of varying sizes and capabilities involved, we wanted to try to level the playing field as best we could without negatively impacting the applicants.  We started the process with an announcement and invitation to come to our offices for a two-hour workshop where we helped the organizations explore their current process flows and the users they serve, and to identify where they could make the most impact with the addition of technology.

The interest came to around 120 individual organizations. After the first workshop we had the organizations submit a short proposal based around the work done in the workshop or work they’d done based on the format of the workshop we had introduced to them.  The proposals we received were, for the most part, to the point and included a direct ask and perceived impact.  The workshop had enabled organizations to understand our interest in the “What” and the “Why” over the “How”.  This allowed applicants to focus their efforts around what they know best:  their users and the needs of those users.  It would be misleading to say that every single proposal we received stuck to this format — there were of course the occasional 20+ page proposal from the organizations with the professional grant writer — but that was the exception.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Photo from ThoughtWorks.

Next, we narrowed the group down to ten finalists.  Our promise to the finalists was that even if they were not one of the two winners, they would walk away with a fleshed-out proposal with a clear ask, reasoning to back it up, and an understanding of resources, funds and time needed to complete it.  In order to make good on this promise, we held a second workshop for the finalist groups.  They each got 1:1 assistance, and this time the focus was on framing an MVP and rough scoping the tech, resources and time needed to complete.  From there they had the option to refine their proposal, images and diagrams from the workshop.

We ended up with a clear understanding of what was being asked for, why, and what it would take to pull off.  It made for a difficult evaluation on our end, because there were few applicants we could disqualify for technicalities. For me, that proved the success of the application process.  In the end we ended up with two diverse winners and 8 finalists with very strong proposals.

I would love to see and to personally attempt to repurpose the format we did at a local level on a larger scale.  It will be interesting to see the creative use of partnerships and program management most likely required to grow this model.

If there are any questions or interest in the methodologies and tools used in the workshop I am happy to help.  You can reach me at jnarkuns [at] thoughtworks.com.

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