This blog post is a quick review and notes relating to a research paper called: The Coerciveness of the Primary Key: Infrastructure Problems in Human Services Work (PDF available here)
It’s part of my new research notebook to help me collect and share notes on research papers and reports.
This paper explores the impact of data infrastructure, and in particular the use of identifiers and the design of databases, on the delivery of human (public) services. By reviewing the use of identifiers and data in service delivery to support homelessness and those affected by AIDS, the authors highlight a number of tensions between how the design of data infrastructure and the need to share data with funders and other agencies has an inevitable impact on frontline services.
For example, the need to evidence impact to funders requires the collection of additional personal, legal identifiers. Even when that information is not critical to the delivery of support.
The paper also explores the interplay between the well defined, unforgiving world of database design, and the messy nature of delivering services to individuals. Along the way the authors touch on aspects of identity, identification, and explore different types of identifiers and data collection practices.
The authors draw out a number of infrastructure problems and provide some design provocations for alternate approaches. The three main problems are the immutability of identifiers in database schema, the “hegemony of NOT NULL” (or the need for identification), and the demand for uniqueness across contexts.
Three reasons to read
Here’s three reasons why you might want to read this paper:
- If, like me, you’re often advocating for use of consistent, open identifiers, then this paper provides a useful perspective of how this approach might create issues or unwanted side effects outside of the simpler world of reference data
- If you’re designing digital public services then the design provocations around identifiers and approaches to identification are definitely worth reading. I think there’s some useful reflections about how we capture and manage personal information
- If you’re a public policy person and advocating for consistent use of identifiers across agencies, then there’s some important considerations around the the policy, privacy and personal impacts of data collection in this paper
Three things I learned
Here’s three things that I learned from reading the paper.
- In a section on “The Data Work of Human Services Provision“, the authors highlighted three aspects of frontline data collection which I found it useful to think about:
- data compliance work – collecting data purely to support the needs of funders, which might be at odds with the needs of both the people being supported and the service delivery staff
- data coordination work – which stems from the need to link and aggregate data across agencies and funders to provide coordinated support
- data confidence work – the need to build a trusted relationship with people, at the front-line, in order to capture valid, useful data
- Similarly, the authors tease out four reasons for capturing identifiers, each of which have different motivations, outcomes and approaches to identification:
- counting clients – a basic need to monitor and evaluate service provision, identification here is only necessary to avoid duplicates when counting
- developing longitudinal histories – e.g. identifying and tracking support given to a person over time can help service workers to develop understanding and improve support for individuals
- as a means of accessing services – e.g. helping to identify eligibility for support
- to coordinate service provision – e.g. sharing information about individuals with other agencies and services, which may also have different approaches to identification and use of identifiers
- The design provocations around database design were helpful to highlight some alternate approaches to capturing personal information and the needs of the service vs that of the individual
Thoughts and impressions
As someone who has not been directly involved in the design of digital systems to support human services, I found the perspectives and insight shared in this paper really useful. If you’ve been working in this space for some time, then it may be less insightful.
However I haven’t seen much discussion about good ways to design more humane digital services and, in particular, the databases behind them, so I suspect the paper could do with a wider airing. Its useful reading alongside things like Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Names and Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Gender.
Why don’t we have a better approach to managing personal information in databases? Are there solutions our there already?
Finally, the paper makes some pointed comments about the role of funders in data ecosystems. Funders are routinely collecting and aggregating data as part of evaluation studies, but this data might also help support service delivery if it were more accessible. It’s interesting to consider the balance between minimising unnecessary collection of data simply to support evaluation versus the potential role of funders as intermediaries that can provide additional support to charities, agencies or other service delivery organisations that may lack the time, funding and capability to do more with that data.