Open source human services weaves a new way forward


Hands of an old Maori woman weaving a traditional Maori woven artwork.

If unpaid carers weren’t caring, the aged care system would fall apart. 46% of people in need of care rely solely on support from friends and family, and conservative estimates put the financial value of carers at $6.5 billion per year.

But caring can be very tough. Carers have some of the lowest levels of self-reported wellbeing of any groups in our community, impairing their physical and mental health, which results in earlier admission to very expensive institutional care months or years before it would otherwise be necessary.

The Australian Centre for Social Innovation (TACSI) has spent years developing a new program called Weavers which throws out a lifeline to new carers. It’s been shown to substantially lift carer wellbeing to the benefit of carers, those they care for and the public purse.


 How does Weavers work?

Volunteer ‘Weavers’ help carers in their neighbourhoods to navigate the service maze, tackle isolation by staying connected with others, and keep things together emotionally. Co-designed and trialled with carers in South Australia and independently evaluated, Weavers has won an Australian International Design Award. Now we’ve ‘open sourced’ it, so if you go to the Weavers’ website, you’ll be able to sign up and access all our hard work for free.

Is there a catch? Well, no, but a better question is: ‘How do we make a return on it?’ Following an establishment grant from the South Australian Government in 2009, TACSI receives no funding from government or philanthropy except in exchange for services rendered.

The answer is that we’re giving away our knowledge (to the extent it can be codified) as a benevolent act. But like Red Hat and any number of other open source software vendors, we freely distribute a codified product and then charge for our services in developing the codified knowledge for organisations that use and adapt it. As Paul Steele of the The Difference Incubator puts it, “My IP is free. My time is not.”

It’s all part of the doing well by doing good playbook. If things work out, the program grows its own ecosystem in which the codified knowledge we open source is complemented by an increasingly large, diverse and sophisticated community of practice. What’s not to like?

Inspired by the freemium model

Free rider opportunities now so dominate free rider problems that some of our most successful companies provide their wares as public rather than private goods. Google and Facebook could have marketed their products behind a paywall to monetise more of the value they generated. But seizing the free rider opportunity and, instead, providing their services as free, public goods, led to such vast value creation that monetising a small fraction of that value via advertising has lifted their combined market capitalisation to over three quarters of a trillion dollars.

In case you’re concerned, we don’t think we’re Google or Facebook. But their own evolution as businesses is, surprisingly enough, illustrative of our own thinking. Both companies could have tried to capture more of the value they created by providing their service as a private good — with users only accessing the service behind a paywall. But both understood that, providing their service as a public good would so vastly increase the total value they produced that this would maximise returns to themselves despite capturing a much smaller share of the total value produced.

Our hunch is that something similar can be said for Weavers. Its potential applicability is vast. Whilst it’s recently been trialled for older people experiencing cognitive decline, we’ve seen it work for people caring for those with disabilities too. We’ve had great interest from those responsible for palliative care. It could work for mental health, for younger carers, for diseases like cancer. It could flourish under consumer directed models including the NDIS.

Weavers could support informal carer support groups as well as private health organisations. This is the same phenomenon that leads to the open source operating system Linux being reworked and released in any number of different distributions adapted to different needs, all of which add to the code base which is then available to others. The opportunities are too great for us to keep it to ourselves.

A couple of the outsize commercial advantages of distributing open source material — whether it’s software or social programs — are that vendors can try before they buy, secure in the knowledge that we’re not seeking to lock them into anything proprietary. And they’re free to adapt the program to their own needs. So far it’s working out very well. We’ve had a lot of interest shown in Weavers and acquired our first paying customer for our consulting services within a couple of weeks of open sourcing it.

The relationship between the codified knowledge and the uncodified knowledge is also worth pondering. As theorists like Michael Polanyi from the left and Friedrich Hayek from the right have both stressed, to function well, a system or a “knowledge economy” must integrate both systematic knowledge and the local, practical, often tacit knowledge of how that systematic knowledge is applied. Much of that practical knowledge will be the product of those within the system learning by doing.

Why is the integration of these two kinds of knowledge so poorly managed today?

Firstly because it’s a damn difficult thing to do, requiring lots of improvisation and experimentation. And, how do you then capture that knowledge for others?

Secondly, formal, structured and systematic knowledge is valorised in our society and economy — it’s where the big bucks and big careers are — while practical knowledge is a low-status activity (a little like caring itself). As Hayek put it in the late 1940s (thinking of the tyranny of central planning and the practical knowledge of the trader):

“Today it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge. But a little reflection will show that there is . . . a body of very important but unorganized knowledge: . . . the knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place. [In this] respect . . . practically every individual has some advantage over all others because he possesses unique information of which beneficial use might be made, but of which use can be made only if the decisions depending on it are left to him or are made with his active co-operation.

“We need to remember only how much we have to learn in any occupation after we have completed our theoretical training, how big a part of our working life we spend learning particular jobs, and how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances.”

We thought of this when reading Fred Chaney’s striking words about indigenous policy in The Australian recently:

“Think of the challenge of school attendance. This looks straightforward. But in practice the causes of non-attendance are many and varied. Here are some: mobility of families, deaths, funerals, sorry business, violence, sporting events, carnivals/shows, overcrowding, street parties at night meaning children do not get sleep, other cultural practices. …

“An approach that will work in Alice Springs is most unlikely to work in Redfern or Aurukun. Contextual factors will be critical. This is one reason local engagement is essential. The chances of there being anything even remotely resembling universal “best practice” are zero. This would throttle effective local service design. This is not to say that there will not be opportunities for learning and for the exchange of experience. But the learning that will apply across sites will be adaptive — not technical or codified.”

In a context in which experience accumulates and circumstances change, learning will be continuous and dynamic. The surrounding system needs to enable these processes on an ongoing basis. It has to be based on learning by doing.

At least in its current guise, Weavers operates in a less fraught area than indigenous policy, but the principles are the same. At least in principle, our open-sourcing of Weavers offers an exciting way to prototype a new ecology between the systematic knowledge codified in the program and the tacit, practical knowledge needed for our system to bear fruit in the world.

How do you scale practical knowledge? The short answer is “imperfectly”. We can help foster the community of practice and it may be possible to partially codify the practical knowledge we acquire. And anyone who uses our ‘code’ will benefit from joining and contributing to the community of practice around it.

With Weavers available for download, TACSI is now exploring the potential of creating open source service models, particularly for the NDIS environment. Could we make high quality service models to all for free, saving individual organisations R&D and setting a higher benchmark for effectiveness?

In an NGO/provider landscape that’s becoming increasingly competitive and proprietary, can open source offer another way? And if, as is the case with open source software, an open source social service is a public good, what implications does that have for government and the wider system of services designed to generate social good?

An economic textbook might say that, because their benefits are generalised throughout society, because they’re so difficult for the provider to capture, governments should fund services like Weavers. But just as it wasn’t governments that produced Linux, it would also be a mistake to think that a government department would be particularly skilled at producing products like Weavers.

On the other hand, if we can lead the way in drawing the experience and perspectives of carers into services that meet their needs better than one-size-fits-all services, shouldn’t governments be trying to lend a hand? Shouldn’t some of the billions governments sink into services to the ageing — like the Commonwealth Home Support Programme (CHSP) — be provided in ways that facilitate service providers making use of its programs and, in the process, helping develop Weavers?

To ask the question a different way, what’s the R&D budget for the CHSP? And mightn’t some of the philanthropic dollars that fund the alleviation of suffering be better spent learning how to do that more effectively and at lower cost?

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