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Platforms, Processes and Legitimate Freedom at the National Government Level

In 2020, Robert MacTavish, a child protection specialist at UNICEF Primero lead, met with the team at OpenFn and laid out a massive challenge facing the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation in Cambodia. He explained that there was no secure, stable, scalable way to share data between different case management systems operated by the government and partner agencies. The result, he went on, was not merely an increased administrative burden but re-victimization. Children might have to recount their whole case history, reliving their traumas time and time again in order to register and access each critical support service they needed.

UNICEF Cambodia (c) Daravatey Seng 2020

Fast forward...

...to the spring of 2021 and child protection case data is now being securely transmitted between systems as part of a fully automated, secure referral workflow running through OpenFn.

If you’re not familiar with OpenFn, it’s an integration platform and toolkit that has been used in over 40 countries to automate business processes, connect disparate systems, and facilitate secure, stable, scalable data sharing. Learn more at OpenFn.org

A success for the Ministry

It’s a big success for the Ministry, for UNICEF, and partner NGO agencies using Primero and OSCaR—the first two case management systems to be integrated. You can read more about it in the Khmer Times, the UNICEF press release, or Primero’s community forum, but here I want to focus on a slightly more nuanced learning that came from this project and Digital Square’s recent investment in the OpenFn “Open Source Integration Toolkit”.

Implementations aren’t always re-usable, but platforms and processes ARE.

We built OpenFn because we were frustrated by the amount of time and money that was being spent rebuilding the digital infrastructure required for secure, robust, long-lasting integrations. Each integration project may be completely different in terms of how data is processed (i.e., the “business rules”) but there are some basic requirements and best-practices that can serve as the building blocks for successful interoperability across almost any set of systems. That’s no surprise to us; it’s the fundamental premise of OpenFn. What’s expanded dramatically through our work in Cambodia, however, is our collection of reusable processes—how to approach integration long before you open up a computer—that can now serve as a template for future projects.

One such process is the “Integration Checklist”, a non-technical checklist that helps organizations bring together relevant stakeholders and define the value and rules of an integration. This is no small thing. In the Primero post mentioned above, Jan Panchalingam, also a Child Protection Specialist at UNICEF, writes that implementing OpenFn is “changing the way they work”.

The “aha” moment for those involved in this project was that the artifacts produced in an OpenFn implementation—actual “triggers” and “jobs” written with and for the Open Source Integration Toolkit—publicly memorialize the data sharing agreements between partners.

I want to stick with that for a moment: the implementation is the agreement!

success

By operationalizing a data sharing agreement through OpenFn, these organizations now have machine-readable granularity, full revision history, and proof-of-processing for their contract.

A huge portion of the work required to make the case management systems interoperable was done on calls, walking through different referral flows and privacy requirements and getting buy-in from various stakeholders and legal entities. Now, the output of those crucial conversations are not just notes or a signed MOU and careful task lists for system admins, they are a series of scripts that are stored and actually enacted, faithfully, automatically, and many times every day by the OpenFn platform–automating data exchange between partner agencies.

By implementing OpenFn—defining the case referral process and the requirements of the agreement in machine-readable levels of specificity—they’ve actually removed huge amounts of ambiguity and helped standardize the data sharing agreements between partner ministries/organizations.

And the reusability of these processes isn’t just theoretical. They are already being applied in three other big UNICEF implementations as we speak. The next to go live will be in Thailand.

UNICEF and the Thai Ministry of Public Health are working to enable social protection caseworkers using the Primero app to access relevant patient medical history securely, via OpenFn and a ministry-managed API gateway. By foregrounding the checklist, and making sure all the stakeholders in these sensitive data-sharing agreements are on board with the concept that this implementation is a way of formalizing and enforcing data sharing agreements, the teams have been able to move much more confidently through the initial prototyping process. At OpenFn, we plan to continue to build out the open source process documentation that goes alongside the software—making it easier for folks everywhere to achieve durable interoperability and manifest their data sharing agreements.

One more thing. On the subject of open source.

Open source is about freedom of choice, not money.

For the moment, in both Cambodia and Thailand, the implementations are running on OpenFn.org—our proprietary cloud-hosted service—but in both cases they’re already evaluating plans to migrate these implementations to make use of the FOSS-only deployment pathway we provide in the Open Source Integration Toolkit.

I think that’s hugely important. A cloud-hosted service might be the best option for a given ministry during prototype, pilot, scale-up, or even national-scale deployments—oftentimes they’re less expensive and more secure—but for systems as important as these, it’s absolutely critical that they’re not locked in.

Governments must be free to export that implementation and run it on completely open source software that they can debug, on whatever servers they’d like, with support from whatever vendors they choose.

This is what recent investment in the Open Source Integration Toolkit, from Digital Square, the FCDO, DIAL, and our team here at OpenFn has made possible. From software, to documentation, to process and implementation guides like those mentioned above, the goal of the toolkit is to build up the integration capability of the sector at large. Ultimately the toolkit will ensure that OpenFn implementations aren’t forever reliant on a single company. It will increase the substantive freedom of governments to make long-term plans and take long-term ownership of their integration solutions, without having to re-code the wheel.

To take action

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If your organization is thinking about interoperability and would like to learn more about OpenFn’s platform or open-source offerings please contact services@openfn.org for a free consultation.

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