Pie in the sky? What cloud computing means for social justice

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons, credit Library of Congress

This is not the place for an indepth discussion on the components of cloud computing. I’m not that much of a technology expert.

But I do think that social workers, and advocates for social justice, need to think about what the move towards less reliance on computer hardware (and even software) and more integration through ‘virtual’ networks means, for issues of access to information, consumer protection, and efforts to close the digital divide.

One of my favorite philanthropy blogs (and one of the very few to actually reference the work of front-line social workers) had a discussion about many of these issues last spring, which prompted my research into the term ‘cloud computing’ and my thinking about what this might mean for social workers in the field and for social work advocates.

Because this is beyond my area of strongest expertise, I’ve got links to share and a lot of questions to ask, and the hopes that some of you who are currently thinking about how you might use new technology to really do your work differently (and what transitioning to a more ‘cloud-based’ model might mean for your thinking about how you organize other systems within your organization, too, because I’m of course concerned that an ‘on-demand’ orientation to software might lead to an (increased) ‘on-demand’ orientation towards human resources) will share what these conversations are looking like and what information and/or connections would help you approach them.

1. Will transferring sensitive client data to the cloud increase security, because cloud systems may be more sophisticated than what we have internally and because the vendors have a strong incentive to protect data, or compromise it (and, therefore, the trust our clients have in us) by putting data into the Internet ‘netherworld’?

2. Is moving to the cloud going to help close the digital divide, because of the low costs of entry (compared with expensive hardware requirements) or expand it, because there are still many parts of the world (and, indeed, the U.S.) without the broadband access that’s essential to meaningfully interface with the cloud?

3. Will making it easier for organizations to share resources and communicate real content facilitate breaking down silos in social services, or will this just reveal the real barriers (more ideological and political than technical) to collaboration?

4. Will Executive Directors and CEOs of nonprofit organizations pursue cloud computing because of a belief in the value of socially-oriented technologies, or in the hopes of reducing capital outlays and outsourcing more previously-internal functions? This last one isn’t so important for the cloud computing discussion itself, but, again, for what it might reflect about the overall disposition of managers within social work organizations, a disposition which has significant implications for working conditions, labor rights, and worker empowerment within organizations.

So, coming down from the clouds, what do you think? Is your organization engaged in this shift today? Do you call it ‘cloud computing’? Do you think it will really change how you work? What about how you connect with others around advocacy? Any answers to my questions?

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One response to “Pie in the sky? What cloud computing means for social justice

  1. What a great topic! The Pregnancy & Postpartum Resource Center actually uses a cloud-computing system for our data storage (client, donor, financial, volunteer, staff, members, potential members and potential donors), reporting, calendar-sharing, and communications. We are not using this particular technology to its fullest extent, admittedly. But you raise some interesting points that I think need to be addressed.

    1. Security–Protecting client data is my foremost concern (after personal safety is assured). As with any change, the risks and benefits of the new system have to be weighed against the risks and benefits of the old system. Our old system–as I suspect many agencies still use–was paper files. PPRC has no geographical location, so this was particularly problematic to us. But I think paper files _often_ are easy for others to access and LEAVE NO TRACE OF WHO HAS VIEWED THEM. Furthermore, they are subject to physical damage. With Salesforce (our customer resource management “web-ware” that utilizes cloud computing), we are able to require that information is entered directly into the computer, so no notes are accidentally left behind for others to peak. While it may seem antithetical to say that client data is more secure because it is stored in several geographic locations, consider the fact that I must set a unique username & password for every customer service rep who helps me. I, then, permanently disable the username and password. The company cannot access the data that is stored on the servers they own. This may be a unique feature of Salesforce, but it exists and social workers should insist on it. I could go on and on about the security features. But, rest assured. There are several layers of protection for client data. Furthermore, this system “protects” client data–for us, for courts, for clients’ futures–in a way that paper systems couldn’t match in a million years.
    2. Digital divide…wow. If it does increase the digital divide, should PPRC avoid using it because our counterparts in other parts of the world can’t? Wouldn’t our experience best serve them by helping them advocate for affordable broadband access? In these “other parts of the world,” what cultural norms surround privacy? Legal requirements? I think it’s essential to consider that in the US, one of the reasons cloud computing is so necessary (to our agency, at least) is to maintain health info privacy, following pretty severe legal requirements. I’m not sure that same standard applies, globally. (And–dare I say it–I’m not sure it should.)
    3. “Breaking down silos” is a terrific reason to invest in cloud computing. YES! It allows us to share info and resources with staff, volunteers, and other agencies. Unfortunately, because it is so difficult to maneuvre–for many social workers–utilizing CC to organize a party is impossible, now. Let alone organizing a movement. The potential is there, though!!! Any takers?
    4. I don’t think of CC as a way of outsourcing internal functions. In fact, I would give my right arm, first born child, and grandma’s heirloom locket to someone who wanted to “manage the cloud” for me. PLUS–CC allows that person the flexibility to work on their own time, wherever is convenient for them, and to be just as effective as if they were in the office. In fact, I believe that CC is the tool that will finally allow women to figure out this work-life balance thing…potentially. I would point out that while CC may be used along with “socially-oriented” programs, it–in and of itself–is not. It’s just a data storage and retrieval model.
    I find it most helpful because I can access client data anywhere my dumb Blackberry gets a signal. I can–with the push of ONE button–log a phonecall with a client. This allows PPRC to allocate well over 90% of our budget to client services (including provider education and relationships). We spend $0 on rent.
    I might also mention that Salesforce actually offers 10 user licenses to nonprofits at no cost. After that, every seat is 80% off of the current rate. My recommendation, if you change over–everyone gets a username (licenses for all) and lots of TLC in the first year.

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