Judy At LibrePlanet Judy presenting at LibrePlanet

This month I attended LibrePlanet for the very first time to speak on how free medical record software using the example of OpenMRS allowed for development in health care delivery in resource limited countries. For a while, I pondered on what to speak about. I didn’t make my slides till the night before as I was unsure of the audience of the meeting, and what would make for a good talk. Downey, the OpenMRS community manager brought LibrePlanet to my attention last year when I informed him that I was fed up of the academic conferences especially around ICT4D where PHD students described how they taught women in Africa to use mobile phones (will save the rant for another day). His description of LibrePlanet attendees as ‘passionate people who deeply care about free software’ was brief and did not make for an easy preparation for my talk.

My lovely hosts and friends Jonathan and Christina were kind enough to let me crash at their place.

Judy and Jonathan Jonathan shows off his mad photography skills

I had a little bit of that geeky excitement that you get when you have been cracking at code all night before the keynote from Snowden that was running late. I don’t know of any conference that folks would have been patiently waiting for the live hacking to make sure everything went smoothly without complaining of how important their time was. My weekend experience turned out to be a self reflection on what it means to have free software. Live attendees were chatting on IRC, and I remember seeing a comment that making a working streaming system solution like skype has been on the priority list for a long time. See full list here http://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/ . I use skype for many conference calls. I am not tied to skype and would use any free software, but I realized that I use non free software because it works, and its great and in this way provides me the freedom to concentrate on the most important tasks of my day – studying, reading a paper, getting new business etc…

What is free software?

From the LibrePlanet website ,

Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. We mean free-as-in-freedom. Think of the word ‘free’ as in ”free association”, not as in ”free hugs”.

Free software is defined by the freedom to use, study, change, and share it

But throughout the conference I wondered, how can we make free software? Are corporations like Microsoft that provide Windows as a proprietary system evil people not to be trusted? What happens when life catches up and free software enthusiasts turn to parents and need more secure jobs. How does this transition occur? I do not claim expertise in free software, but I see a fundamental challenge of advocating for free software. Allow me to give a different analogy from the medicine field.

If you have been watching news lately, then the changes in health care probably have not passed you by, or at the very least you know of ‘Obamacare’. We all know the pie for generating more income for investors has shrunk considerably. Silicon Valley funding is going down; employee perks are being cut down to allow only meaningful business to thrive. On the other hand, the health care pie has grown… We are living to be older and with increasing medical needs and costs provided to keep us alive. Even alphabet is investing in aging. The VCs are starting to eye this pie too, with companies with machine and deep learning aiming to replace radiologists for image interpretation. But how does that health care pie maintain itself? Through advocacy!

Most physicians remain apathetic to politics and bills. But the professional bodies seriously lobby their members’ interests. For example, the ACR (American College of Radiology) will fundraise from members and sponsor bills that affect the core business of radiology e.g. the appropriate age to receive screening mammograms. These organizations have lawyers that interpret the bills being passed in each state and nationally that affect their core business. And yes, contributing to your local representative can get you audience to plead your case.

The work and passion of LibrePlanet has never been so timely. Beyond software, is the new era of hardware (and this is something that came up repeatedly from the conference) and IOTs and smart devices. When the desire to unplug from the fridge that monitors your feeds to the live tracking from multiple apps on your phone comes, then I want that freedom. Unfortunately, most people that want that freedom are still apathetic! Hence the voices of LibrePlanet will be critical. But to make an impact, the righteous anger and passion of the conference attendees need to be channeled to the right avenue. It means attracting the best minds to come up with innovative business models for providing free software, designers developing products that can be shared and attract users to meet their value. It is the evolution of organizations like OpenMRS to provide an ecosystem that innovates on building free software with no exit plan of being bought off by venture capitalists.

Back to my presentation, I highlighted ideas of how I see the OpenMRS ecosystem evolving to the future to keep writing code and saving lives!

Judy At Stata building Judy outside the famous MIT Stata building designed by Frank Gehry