This opening blog post is based on an email I wrote a couple of weeks ago, but I was prompted to tidy it up and publish it by a @shirleyayres tweet from last Friday:

The online social care directory is an idea that has had currency for several years, and was given a boost by the Putting people first document that seemed to encourage it. It doesn’t really matter whether it is a good idea or not but it is not atypical of change in adult social care in that it has to happen fairly rapidly and 152 times. Big changes are required rapidly because the number of elderly is set to increase rapidly, and new systems will be required to implement the change, administer the new systems or count the beans or whatever. And social care (like highways, waste, education, libraries and many other services) is implemented at a local level.

Are Local Authorities so unique?

I have worked around local authorities since I had a hand in a poll tax system in the 1990s and I have been to many conferences and other events where I have heard chief execs and directors speak. Without exception they have always started with a slide or two about what makes their county / borough / district unique. I have never yet heard one of them stand up and say (though they surely all know it) “something like 95% of what we do is exactly the same as what every other county / borough / district does”.

So when a big change is required, such as an online social care directory, or a shift to re-enablement (and there will surely be other examples on adult social care in the next few years, and probably in areas I know nothing about as well) there is a danger that 152 (or a larger number, in the case of something run at a district level) wheels will be invented. Clearly this isn’t a good thing for the tax payer, and the more realistic scenario of 4-10 commercial companies all writing similar products and then having to go through hugely expensive (for both parties) procurement processes isn’t that much better.

Open source - a better way

I think that a deliberate move to open source could be a better way, and the time for doing it is now. Already we are seeing a significant shift to procuring and using open source toolsets in central government with the ongoing whole-government website project being written in open source languages and we are meant to see more of the same:

The days of the mega IT contracts are over, we will need you to rethink the way you approach projects, making them smaller, off the shelf and open source where possible.
Francis Maude MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office, 2nd December 2010

In general it is clearly a harder argument to say that it is worthwhile open sourcing the sites you develop (though have done so). There are clearly extra steps to be taken (tidying up licensing, making sure all embarrassing comments are removed etc.) which don’t benefit a one-off project. If the project is general however there are benefits and in social care and health it is easy to see that there are as many users as there are PCTs / LAs / hospitals etc. At the moment they are paying, in the best case, companies to write products which they all pay for and none control, and in the worst case they pay £12.7bn for something that only serves to enrich the shareholders of large multi-nationals but doesn’t actually work. In health there are a few people banging this drum (@robdykedotcom is perhaps the loudest example) and some recent progess.

Organising Open Source need not be like herding cats

What I would like to see is something along the lines of an adult social care equivalent of Code for America - an organisation funded by various levels of government and the private sector who write open source software that can then be used by states, cities, counties in the US or elsewhere. Given that the desired outcome of software to improve the quality and efficiency of adult social care is one that is surely held by everyone you would hope that even people who are not employed in the public sector may want to contribute for nothing to improve the code base (see this brilliant video to see why). An organising company (and I am clearly hoping that it will be Reallycare CIC - the not for profit company I founded a few months ago) will co-ordinate the efforts of (if funding can be found) staff and volunteers.

I have made a start on two websites in the space that will be open-sourced. One is a site for running volunteering groups which is live as a standalone website in a small part of East Sussex and can be made available to voluntary organisations. The other is (funnily enough) a directory which has got a long way to go before it sees the light of day (unless I suddenly get an influx of Ruby and Rails developers who want to help).

The intention is to organise a hack weekend, probably in January, to try and take things forward. If you would be interested in taking part please leave a comment.