In association with heise online

29 October 2010, 19:38

Open source needs an attack of the heart

by Dj Walker-Morgan

Last Friday, I had a heart attack. As I was rushed to the hospital by the superb ambulance crews and through the operating theatre and onwards to the recovery room by the skilled surgeons, one thing stuck in my mind; how badly open source, and software development in general, has let down health care professionals, who I watched handle bundles of notes and forms which contained the crucial patient care information.

The thought was brought into even starker contrast when I was allowed home and saw on the news feed how the / LibreOffice friction was continuing. It isn't like documents are a "solved" problem, though a lot of people treat it like one, arguing about the naming and ownership of freely available software, in part because we don't like the company who contributed the code in the first place. In the big scheme of things, that's pretty trivial, especially when we've only taken care of one document problem, that of the office document, and the IT industry has made a mess of that too as a proprietary format dominates and an open standard is still fighting for a place in the establishment. And health care documentation is difficult, make no mistake about it; it's the kind of problem that will need the collective brains of the open source community and more.

The day before my heart attack, I was in Paris at the Alfresco developer conference. In the keynote, Brian Behlendorf, primary developer of the Apache web server, was talking about the project he is currently involved in which uses open source methodologies, wikis, collaboration and focussed problem domains, to develop a way for healthcare professionals to exchange documents securely. But, as I found at the "coal face" the next day, those documents are bundles of paper with no backup copies visible and subject to all the fallibility of handwritten notes.

It's not just a software problem though; we need to come up with new ways of rapidly capturing the health care professionals thoughts and information, ones which are as fast as handwriting, with devices which aren't going to act as a vector for infection. To create those devices and the software, we, as an open source and IT community, need to create the framework and intelligence pool so that we can approach the severely time constrained doctors, nurses and other professionals, and find out what they need and how we can build it.

If open source is about scratching your own itch, then this is an itch we should have. Ill health comes to us all and if we leave it to the proprietary health care IT business, we'll find our well being locked into pay for health information systems with the developed technology not being available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world, to help those people who save lives every day; lives like mine, and lives like yours.

Dj Walker-Morgan is the editor-in-chief of The H and has been writing software commercially since the early 80s. He has written about UNIX and free and open source software since before people called it free and open source software, in UK print publications such as Personal Computer World and PC Pro. Notionally retired in the current millennium, heise convinced him to come out of retirement to head up it's UK presence, now known as The H. You can follow him on Twitter as @codepope.

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