Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Why Keep Good Work Secret?

Recently, I wrote the following opinion piece for another venue - I thought I'd share it here with you, as you too might find it interesting. Although I refer specifically to San Diego, I think you'll see that the concept applies far more broadly. The case studies I mention are taken from my book "Computers and Society - Computing For Good".

(For fun, I'm challenging you to figure out why I'm including this particular picture)

People are cynical about the social value technology has for society. As part of my research into socially beneficial computing, I ask random people what the phrase “computers and society” means to them. Respondents invariably start referring to problems: people get hurt, people are screwed over, all types of disasters can happen. Occasionally, people provide specific examples but most of the time they say vague things about how computers dehumanize society. Prodded to think about where computing is being used to benefit society, they pause, and most commonly refer to the One Laptop Per Child initiative or perhaps make a vague reference to philanthropy in “developing countries”.  They think about large software companies that have “extra money” to spend on “side activities”. The evidence is clear: on a gut level, public perception associates computing, and technology driven business in general, with causing harm. People believe there is no business case for using computers to make the world a better place.

Yet, my research has also shown that a wide range of organizations across the country are better able to do business when they focus on the unique role computing can play in helping people or the environment. Not just hi-tech companies either. I studied several dozen organizations that achieved dramatic improvements in executing their core mission by leveraging computing for the public good.

There are many ways to both benefit the public and support your mission with computing. One approach is to take advantage of state of the art advances in computer hardware and software. For example, the Children’sHospital of Philadelphia started with an industry standard PACS for storing and managing their digital images. Unfortunately, the proprietary system did not deal effectively with the demands of modern complex healthcare data. Nurses and doctors who want to spend their time on patient care found themselves having to spend time on wasteful and expensive activities such as manually retrieving digital images.  After implementing a Vendor Neutral Archive, the hospital was able to more efficiently store and retrieve images and to achieve significant cost savings. Stakeholders such as doctors and radiologists were pleased. Most importantly, patient care was improved because imaging data became more rapidly and reliably available, greatly reducing instances of patients “getting the run-around”. The hospital’s already world-renowned reputation for excellence in children’s medical care increased even more. 

A second approach uses distributed computing such that experts can combine forces and make discoveries no single person or institution could make alone. For example, in another healthcare project, a team of interdisciplinary neonatologists, known as The Children’s Hospitals Neonatal Consortium (CHNC), is collaborating with The Child Health Corporation ofAmerica, based in Kansas City, to develop a national database to identify and share best practice recommendations for rare, life threatening conditions. Although still early in the development cycle, the CHNC initiative has already fostered important discussions between member hospitals about how to collect and study data in compliance with federal healthcare reform mandates. When fully implemented, the project will facilitate tracking and trending of individual and patient data, and establish benchmarking standards for quality care across the United States. Physicians and their patients in rural or otherwise isolated hospitals will share in the benefits of cutting edge health informatics research. 

You don’t have to be a large organization to benefit from using computers for social good. As demonstrated by the Sea Turtle Conservancy (STC), based in Gainesville, Florida, social networking can be a powerful way for a small organization to gain more power and influence. With a staff of fewer than 20 people, the STC is trying to reach a world-wide audience about the importance of saving sea turtles. By enhancing, and in some cases replacing, traditional labor intensive outreach methods with a strategic use of social media, they get their message out where it really counts. For example, when the Deep Horizon Oil Spill occurred, state and federal agencies asked for STC assistance, knowing the group was a source of reliable, accurate information about sea turtles and that they had an effective social media presence. The agencies kept the STC in the loop about many activities and the group subsequently played an important role in voicing the positive aspects of the disaster response. Significantly, the STC increased their membership even during the recent recession.

Surprisingly, most organizations I studied did not advertise their computing accomplishments. Yet publicizing your use of computers for the public good can be a valuable selling point. Here in San Diego, where our industry focus is heavily weighted towards biotechnology and medical care, we have a unique opportunity to be on the leading edge of social responsibility and computing. Competitive advantage will follow. San Diego businesses use cutting edge digital technology, are making life saving new discoveries all the time, and provide state of the art services. Putting the spotlight on how you use computing to benefit society will surprise your audience and cause them to see you in a whole new light.


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