We keep feeding the machine, but what has the machine done for us?

So I’ll continue of where Ian left off with his blog post about the product, the app, the thing and it’s role in building relationships.

He alluded to a slight change in direction. Previously about surfacing hidden data, now more focused on relationship building.

Social Platforms

My classic reaction to such a proposition is to start thinking in terms of social platforms. In this case i’m keen to try and steer away from that direction as social-platforms can be reductive in their nature. Reducing a person down to a profile, an avatar and activity stream. A conversation down to a text box. Text is a low bandwidth communication, phrases can easily taken out of context or – more accurately – out of face. Social platforms have a lot to offer many situations (a-synchronous, trackable, analysable, scalable) but if pushed too far down this direction people become purely the meat that drives digital interactions.

Image borrowed from here – thanks!

Social technology should be about triggering you to call or meet someone. They should be focused as a supplement to richer communication channels, not a replacement a for them. Ironically for a project that is looking into using a database-driven-applications to help with Child protection Terri Dowty nails it:

“Rather than trying to reduce child protection to an industrial process, the government should give maximum priority to the current staffing crisis in social services. No computer can substitute for the intuition and professional judgment of an experienced social worker, nor for conversations between real live people; hunches don’t readily translate into words on a database.”

Getting out the way

It has become clear during this project that what enables frontline workers to be brilliant is professional experience. Hunches, trust, “knowing where to look”. To try and replicate these intuitions in data formats and interface design seems naive at best and an enormous waste of money at worst. I’ve been trying to think of an application that I don’t notice i’m using, that fades into the background and help me get on with my job.

Dropbox gets out of my way, but remove it from my Mac now and I’d feel like i hade lost a limb. Delicious doesn’t expect sharing of me, it primarily offers me an easier way of getting to my bookmarks. The network effect is secondary collateral. Schooloscope offers data to me at a glance before I decide to take the time to deep dive into something.¬†Between those three points is something, what it is quite yet we are not sure, but there is definitely something.

Mega Systems

What we don’t want to do is build a mega-system. Much as it would be easier to create The-One-Central-System that everyone agrees to use. Over time these become unmanageable and out of date.


To my mind OpenAir offers the false promise that you might ever “know the status of everything”. Aside from the philosophical complexities of knowing everything, there are design implications to offering this kind of functionality!

A more apt example was the much referenced ContactPoint. Mentioned by the frontline workers as A Good Thing I can understand why, it exposed unknown colleagues in a fairly quick and simple fashion. Yet it only takes a moment of digging into how it was conceived that it starts to sings of Ministerial panic – “held information on all children under 18 in England”. All the Children? All of them? Even those you have never met and have no need to? With the god-like powers of hindsight I wonder why it took roughly ¬£220m in payment to Capgemini to conclude that it might not be welcomed by everyone.

I’d rather say we don’t know everything. Professionals just know when things seem to be running well and from quantitative feedback can you can validate that things are improving.

Lets lay off the reporting sytsems and focus technology either removing tangible barriers or honing in on the parts of frontline workers daily lives that work well and supercharge them.

Personally my quote over the 2 days of workshopping was the exacerbated release of:

“We keep feeding the machine, but what has the machine done for us?”

Fingers crossed we make a good first step towards giving something back.

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