Other people’s children

All of the greatest advances in our society have come when we’ve invested in other people’s children.

Attributed to Robert Putnam

That was Tim O’Reilly quoting Robert Putnam on the same After On podcast episode I quoted earlier.

I can’t find it elsewhere in as many words, but this appears to be the gist of Putnam’s book, ‘Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis’.

In this interview on PBS, Putnam unpacks the idea:

When I was growing up in Port Clinton 50 years ago, my parents talked about, “We’ve got to do things for our kids. We’ve got to pay higher taxes so our kids can have a better swimming pool, or we’ve got to pay higher taxes so we can have a new French department in school,” or whatever.

When they said that, they did not just mean my sister and me — it was all the kids here in town, of all sorts. But what’s happened, and this is sort of the bowling alone story, is that over this last 30, 40, 50 years, the meaning of “our kids” has narrowed and narrowed and narrowed so that now when people say, “We’ve got to do something for our kids,” they mean MY biological kids.

The evidence suggests that when in American history we’ve invested more in the education of less well-off kids, it’s been good for everybody. My grandchildren are going to pay a huge price in their adult life because there’s a bunch of other kids, in principle just as productive as them, who didn’t get investments from their family and community, and therefore are not productive citizens. The best economic estimates are that the costs to everybody, including my own grandchildren, of not investing in those “other people’s kids” are going to be very high.

Robert Putnam

Of course, we should invest in ‘our kids’ – the ‘our kids’ that includes other people’s kids – simply because it’s the right thing to do. But it’s good to be reminded that part of the reason we should do it is because of what we will lose if we don’t.

What contributions of art or science, what service, what funny stuff, what friendships and possibilities will we and our kids miss out on by allowing other people’s kids to be left behind?

The valley of crappy data

Joost Wesseling from the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment on the iffy quality of readings from citizen air quality measurement efforts using cheap sensors:

If we don’t do these experiments now, then we also won’t have decent sensors in five years, which is also what we are aiming at.

We have to go through this period where we have crappy data from crappy sensors in order to get better data from better sensors.

Joost Wesseling

Hardware / Software

Hardware is important. Physical infrastructure like roads and the electrical grid, machines like drills, buses and computers, even your office space – all of this is hardware.

All else being equal, better hardware is better. It’s worth replacing bad hardware, but it’s often slow and relatively expensive to change.

Software is the non-physical stuff that runs on the hardware and makes it useful. A road network can get by with almost no software – with car drivers who make it up as they go along – if very few people use it. But it works much better – and has capacity several orders of magnitude greater – with better software.

The software of the road network includes the rules of the road, signalling conventions, and a way of enforcing the rules of the system. Better software helps us get to where we’re going faster, more safely, and with less stress.

Mixed up in this software are countless opportunities for generosity, kindness and grace – letting someone in, not cutting someone off, patience in a queue. The software can make them more likely, but there’s no code that can guarantee them… which is a shame, because they make everything better.

What software runs your organisation, and is it time for an upgrade? It might help you achieve a lot more with the same hardware.

Could you do with adding more kindness and grace? They’re infectious.

Who pays? (3)

Last but not least… changing who pays for what can help you to take better care of your team.

In the early years we asked team members to do occasional evening and weekend work as part of their contract. This worked okay, but created two bad incentives.

  1. We had effectively already paid for for the extra time in advance, so we had an incentive to use the resource (out-of-work-hours work) that we’d already paid for more than we otherwise might – it wasteful not to.
  2. To get our money’s worth, we were less careful about arranging work commitments outside office hours. We gained by using (or over-using) our staff – in effect, we were asking them to pay the price of the additional activities we chose to do.

To solve this problem, we started paying our staff a bonus for every night that they spent away from home for work. If the work is important, it’s worth paying for – so we (or the customer) pays, and our employees are happy to be compensated for their lost time.

If the work isn’t important, we’re forced to ask the question “is it worth paying this much to get this done?”. If the answer is no, we don’t do it.

Who pays? (2)

Shifting to a user-pays model had another significant impact on our work – we became more accountable to the people we serve, and the quality of our work went up as a result.

Accountability and Quality

Under our old operational model we received charitable donations and provided our materials and training to partner schools for free. We were accountable to our donors for how we spent their funds. We did our best for our users, but, well, they were getting our service for free. It was infinitely better than nothing, even if there was the odd typo, or the odd part of the curriculum that didn’t really make sense.

When we began asking users to pay (mainly in an effort to allow us to serve more people), an improvement in quality was an unexpected benefit:

“We’ve got to fix those typos – people are paying for this.”

“This curriculum needs to fit together way more tightly, or no-one will buy it.”

Asking your users to pay creates more direct accountability and a tighter feedback loop to your users. The shift from giving to beneficiaries to selling to customers / clients forces you to focus more intently on creating products and services that meet their needs rather than yours or your donors’, and on making something that they think is worth the cost in terms of time, money and attention.