Questions for Michael Drane

This interview is one in a series introducing the people of iHRIS to the global iHRIS community. To nominate someone to be featured, please leave a reply below.

Michael Drane is the Open Source Community Manager for CapacityPlus, an IntraHealth International-led project funded by USAID. He joined the iHRIS team in October of this year to build and strengthen the Global iHRIS Support Community. I talked to Michael about the contributions he hopes to make to the iHRIS community.

Interview by Adam Gori

Michael Drane portrait

Let’s talk about why you chose to work with and for iHRIS. What is it that drew you to this community?

I believe that the power of information is the answer to overcoming many of today’s challenges. There is now a shortfall of nearly 7.5 million health workers needed to meet the globe’s demand for healthcare. How are nations going to meet their healthcare demands if they don’t know their health workforce inside and out?

In developed countries such as the U.S., the tendency is to throw a lot of money or people at a problem. In low-resource countries like many in Africa, there’s not that tendency. Those countries need to rely on information systems to make more efficient and effective decisions with the resources that exist.

iHRIS allows organizations to leverage the power of information without spending thousands of dollars on licensing fees; however, a strong community supporting iHRIS is needed if it is to replace fee-for-service software.

Do you have a personal value system that drives this? Why you, and why this?

I’ve always adopted the phrase, “unity in diversity.” I lived in London and went to a university that was made up of 105 different nationalities. I liked the feel and energy of that environment, and I learned very quickly that that type of diversity is what is going to overcome a lot of the challenges that we see in a globalized world. The opportunity to foster and nurture a diverse community as we see in iHRIS is very attractive to me.

Since graduating from university, every single job that I have had has given back to either people or the environment.  And  now I find myself working to strengthen and foster a community of diverse individuals who want to see that health workers are in the right place at the right time to help people in need.

What is your hope for iHRIS and for the community of iHRIS through the work that you do?

My hope is that more people who want to make a difference by increasing others’ access to healthcare will find iHRIS, and that they will find iHRIS a rewarding means to make a contribution to that effort.

The iHRIS community, while global, is not large, but it’s a testament to how good and skillful the current community is that so much has been achieved. I know there are more talented and caring people out there who want to join this campaign and make a difference by promoting information systems in low-resource environments. We just need to make sure that those people know we’re here, and that we welcome them with open arms.

Let’s say I work in an office in Ghana, and I use iHRIS Qualify, how can I contribute to the global iHRIS community? What would be my first step?

I’d say join the mailing list and any other community forums that are found on some of our social media sites like Facebook or Google+ so that you are plugged into the community and know where to get support when you need it.

But where you can really help is to submit feature requests. These are features within iHRIS, in this case Qualify, that you believe would help you make decisions and overcome some of the challenges that you deal with on a daily basis. By simply submitting a feature request, it gives somebody in the community, such as a developer or a graphic artist or a web designer, something to work on and a means for them to contribute.

What is it that makes iHRIS a functioning community?

I think it’s the impact that iHRIS has on global health, the power that is unleashed when community members see data turned into information that saves lives. When community members understand how iHRIS’s open approach to human-resource information affects nations and communities, they are inspired to work together.

I want to focus on expanding the community beyond software developers, programmers, and implementers to include users and graphic artists and other non-developers, because there is equally as much of a role for them to play in advancing iHRIS.

Who do you think is most in need of community or connection right now, and what do you want to say to them?

I think the actual end users of the program, those who are actually using iHRIS to generate reports and make decisions with the information in iHRIS. Theirs is a voice that’s not as alive and present as it could be right now. It certainly exists, but not to the level that we need to see that iHRIS advances to that next level.

I spoke with a  woman named Oluchukwu Ifele recently. Oluchukwu manages a licensing and verification office for nurses in Nigeria. One of her jobs is to produce information or records, often to members of the general public, upon request. Much of the general public is used to paper records stored in giant boxes in basements. When Oluchukwu answers their questions in a matter of seconds, many are just flabbergasted, and even resistant — they expect the delay, the series of stamps on papers — and she feels that one of her roles is to educate and promote data use to the general public.

She effectively is the manifestation of iHRIS’s true impact. She represents the influence that iHRIS has in global health. It’s very important that iHRIS users like her are part of the community, that they understand their leadership role, and that they share experiences with those who are developing and designing the interface. For her to share what it’s like to answer data-use questions while on the phone with a health worker, how could anyone argue that should not be taken into account in the design of  the system?

Are there any immediate changes that you think are going to make it easier for people to join the community, or to communicate?

Yes, and I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s one of my main focuses. We’ve made changes that open the door to newcomers, that welcome them into the community and provide a clear path to getting started, no matter what their role is. I believe someone should be able to get involved and make a contribution that has an impact on iHRIS within 30 days. That’s one of the immediate changes that we’re making. Anyone can join the community and get connected very quickly, and they’ll have a clear idea of what and how they can contribute.

So you’d like them to feel acknowledged immediately. How do you do that?

That may be a personal connection from me or from an established leader within the community to learn what their interests are and how they’d like to contribute to the community. They will be given an array of options that they can begin to work on. One of the things that we want to implement very soon is monthly global community calls. We’d like to organize meet-ups as well.

Sometimes to grow an online community, you’ve got to meet offline. I think it’s very important that we connect face to face when possible. We’ll have monthly community calls for developers and users and implementers, and we’ll also have a global community call, where anybody can get on the call and listen to what’s going on and get updates so that everybody feels connected. And then when possible, we’ll organize meetups in-country and in-city. These meet-ups can focus on training, sharing use-case and data-use experiences, or just inspire and connect.

You’re talking about creating an environment where people can make professional contact internationally, but also locally, face-to-face.

Absolutely. There’s a lot to gain by increased interaction, and part of that will be going beyond the mailing list to include community calls and face-to-face interaction, whether it be a training academy or presentations by one implementation team to another implementation team on their report generation or how they overcame a particular implementation challenge.

It seems to me the reason someone would get involved with iHRIS and want to stay involved is because of the potential to affect human lives in positive ways. Is one of your challenges communicating that iHRIS is not just about technology or data, it’s really about people’s lives, it’s about local empowerment?

I think that is what is most inspiring to potential community members, even people who may not be in Africa. A developer from anywhere in the world, say somebody in Belgium or Brazil, could write code to generate a report that could be in the hands of a state minister of health in Nigeria, and that report could influence a decision that could save hundreds if not thousands of lives.

That’s the beauty of open-source software development, particularly as it pertains to iHRIS. Small contributions have the potential to save thousands of lives. It’s an exciting opportunity that the iHRIS open-source community offers its members. Small differences amount to big things.

The truth is, whether it’s translating a page, designing a few graphic icons, fixing bugs, or submitting some documentation on the wiki, it all adds up to a more robust and better performing iHRIS. The better iHRIS is the more effective organizations and users will  become in managing and supporting their health workforce.  No contribution is t0o small.

iHRIS has done a spectacular job of creating the technical infrastructure that countries need. What’s next?

You’re right, the iHRIS collection of applications is poised and well-suited to be implemented in many contexts. Where iHRIS needs to do a better job is in better supporting and empowering the implementers who are on the ground bringing iHRIS to life in the countries where it’s deployed.

There are a whole slew of challenges that need to be understood in context. For example, what works in Nigeria may not work in Botswana, but by no means does that suggest that an implementation team should go about installing iHRIS alone. There are many instances and experiences that can be found useful from one team to another. My hope is that I can play a role in starting more of those conversations.

Those who are on the ground where iHRIS is being installed, who are actually communicating with the stakeholders, they know best how to implement and customize iHRIS. That needs to be understood community-wide. There is no one single way to implement iHRIS.

For that reason, iHRIS must always remain free and open. iHRIS  inherently belongs to everyone, especially the community of users, developers, and implementers that spend their time and energy supporting it, extending it, and making it work.  iHRIS  exists in the open and free world so that it can be implemented and used by anybody according to their own needs. It’s as simple as that. If we lose sight of that, we don’t understand iHRIS.

Let’s end by talking about an action plan for newcomers to iHRIS. What are the steps by which a person new to iHRIS can jump into the community?

First, go to our website, complete the Join the Community Form, and let us know how you wish to get involved.

Let me also mention a less emphasized but very important role in the community, and that is simply being a spokesperson for iHRIS.  You don’t have to be a developer, an implementer or even a user of iHRIS to make a difference. It’s people who believe in the power of iHRIS, who might like us on Facebook, follow us on Google+, read our blog posts. These are people who believe in and understand the importance of information systems in human resources for health. They spread the good word by sharing blog posts, by sharing data-use stories. Supporting them in getting the word out is just as important as submitting code. What we’re embarking on is as much an information campaign as it is an information system.

Follow Michael on Twitter @michael_intrah