We are the Source

Blog

Tobin Greensweig is a physician with a special interest in global health informatics and open source technology. He has worked extensively in East Africa and is the co-founder of MigrantHealth:IL, an organization helping to improve the health of migrant populations in Israel.

Although I’m not working on the Hadron Collider or investigating theoretical mathematics, for a long time I’ve had a hard time explaining just what it is that I do. I’m not talking about doctoring, that’s easy. I’m talking about open source medical informatics for the developing world. Thanks to the Obamacare buzz, people generally understand that 'medical informatics' has something to do with the computer their doctor uses. However, the term 'open source' is where things start to get murky.

Thanks to a Go Network! Micro Grant this year, I was able to attend my third annual OpenMRS Implementers meeting this year in Eldoret, Kenya. This unconference brought together more than 100 people with strong interests in using the OpenMRS software platform to improve the health of millions of people in the developing world. It was an intense week of hacking, sharing, networking, and learning.

At the conference I introduced the Appointment Scheduling Module, a piece of software created by students I mentored from Ben Gurion University for the Refugee Clinic in Tel Aviv. The module, based on our needs in Israel but designed in a way to make it broadly applicable, has been downloaded more than 300 times and is now being used and improved (thank you open source) by clinics around the world. People were impressed with our software, but what really surprised me was that they were far more interested in my experience - just how did we handle all the permutations that go into the seemingly simple problem of scheduling a patient for follow-up? I had spent so much time thinking about each and every one of these minute details that suddenly I was the community’s expert.

At the unconference, I realized my difficulty explaining my work stemmed from a misunderstanding of open source. Before the meeting I always focused on the technology and explained it in terms of freely available source code. But, through lots of conversations about appointments and crystallizing comments from my friend and mentor Burke Mamlin, I realized the word 'source' isn’t referring to the source code at all - it’s referring to the people who design and create OpenMRS. It’s referring to the collective experience of our community who deeply understands the issues of providing healthcare in resource poor environments and how to work openly to distill that knowledge into software. We are the source.

My heightened understanding of open source philosophy and methodology has done more than keep me from fumbling through explanations of what I do - it’s affected the way that I work. As I mentor students and bring new talent to OpenMRS I find myself ever more focused on the community and how to behave openly, and much less so on the technology.

I recently spoke in this vane at the Medical School for International Health’s Global Health Symposium and invite you to watch: