Tech for social change is one aspect of Thoughtworks’ social change model. For many years we have helped movements and organizations pursuing various forms of social and economic justice with software, design, consulting and strategy skills. This happens in different ways: as pro-bono or low-bono work supported by Thoughtworks, or as voluntary work by individuals, often coordinated through our social change leads.
Understand what is needed
We have learnt that, as strange as it may sound, sometimes there can be too many helping hands. Significant crises, such as large numbers of people seeking refuge from war and violation of human rights or the current pandemic, trigger a wave of initiatives where people want to help. While this is a good starting point, people need to think carefully about how their contribution can have a real impact.
Building the umpteenth translation app to support refugees is well-intentioned but chances are that there are better and more effective ways to help. Take time to look at the bigger picture and listen to organizations to understand what is really needed. We are experts in building software products but we are not experts in resolving humanitarian crises.
What are the lessons learned from this experience? What should others who want to contribute to social change in similar ways bear in mind?
- The relationship between Thoughtworkers and the OpenMRS community is based on solidarity. This is important because it allows the community to determine what needs to be done and where help is needed. Thoughtworkers then offer their expertise to make that happen; critical in ensuring the right work is prioritized.
- The transition from initial enthusiasm to a sustained contribution is not easy. Both teams experienced fluctuations: in some cases team members were reassigned to client work while others found alternative beach activities more interesting. That is perfectly ok, others will follow and fill the gaps. Having a long-standing team member take the time to onboard new joiners helps keep momentum.
- Last but not least, team autonomy is an important success factor. The teams learned the trade by working on introductory tickets  and then engaged with the OpenMRS community to find larger and more interesting topics. Finding their own topics strengthened the sense of purpose and commitment.
Bahmni COVID-19 global response
While the teams working on OpenMRS are not directly contributing to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, another team, who have been working on Bahmni for several years, started thinking about how it could be extended in that context.
Bahmni  is an easy-to-use EMR and hospital system for low-resource settings, which addresses all aspects of running a hospital. It combines and enhances existing open source products (OpenMRS, OpenELIS, Odoo & dcm4chee) into a single solution.
For COVID-19, there is an urgent need for integrating the clinical systems of providers that do COVID-19 testing and need to share information with relevant authorities in a secure and safe manner.
The idea was to enhance Bahmni by adding features that would allow healthcare providers to track COVID-19 testing and treatment. There is also a proposal to build in features that would allow doctors to offer telemedicine consultation to patients.
Using existing systems such as Bahmni (in place in over 500 hospitals) means that uptake and usefulness can be immediate and widespread, in areas which have great need due to their lack of funding and low staffing levels.
Similar to the work on OpenMRS, the bulk of the work on Bahmni is being undertaken by a global community of Thoughtworkers who are currently not assigned to client work or volunteer to contribute in their private time. These people continue the tradition of generations of Thoughtworkers who helped, and are helping, to build a more equitable and socially just future.