Isn’t IT supposed to save money?

From this NY Times article  the New York City Department of Education (DOE) is spending $700 million on a payroll system. You know the type of thing I made as a hobby or any number of existing projects. Meanwhile teachers are being laid off. There’s some real administrative problems here, but there’s also some very big IT ones when $700 million is spent on effectively nothing. I would take a project like that for $50k plus hardware expenses, but actually I’d feel bad ripping of the DOE.

IT is supposed to save money remember? Having machines work for you. If this isn’t happening you are doing it wrong. Last year I made a proposal to a certain school in New York to create a free and open source information system. It keeps payroll of student workers. It handles grades and general school data. It even integrates with products like SugarCRM and Engrade (free but not FOSS). The program brings what would have costs over $5000 a year to just $2000, a fee I charge for continued support. But the real savings is in efficiency. Student Worker Relational Database is saving time for teachers and staff. Remember, that’s what IT is supposed to do, computers working for you. Teachers can look up student data in seconds, rather than pour over various databases and Excel sheets. Principles can do complicated analytics in minutes rather than days.

[Student Worker Database] brings together all the information that different people in the school -Administration, Teachers, CWSP, College Counselors, Dean of Student, Social Workers, etc – used to keep in different and not always integrated software. I can now have all this information integrated in one common report saving vary valuable time. The grade analytic feature has also given us the possibility of accessing and processing data much faster and using it to inform teachers, students and parents.
– Maria Andreau, Assistant principle of Cristo Rey New York High School

The open source model allows other schools to potentially contribute as well. Unlike some industries, education isn’t really about “beating” your competition. Yes every school wants to be the best, but that doesn’t mean you want other schools to fail. If another school benefits from work done on an open source project, it actually benefits the early adopter school. That’s why I don’t believe proprietary systems have any place in the education environment. There may be some models that it makes sense, but not schools. Schools are the perfect environment for open source. They aren’t as competitive. They have very common needs. They attract people who are in it to help people, not just the money (which isn’t so glamorous). But where is open source in the industry? It’s near non existent. There are some exceptions, but most schools use Windows, MS Office, proprietary school information systems, proprietary fund raising tools, etc.

If there is a beacon of hope, it’s that these proprietary systems are awful. The opportunity for a hugely successful open source project is here. The information system I replaced with year was a 90’s DOS application ported to Windows. Updates generally include a new picture and marketing about how modern the system is. Even the newer web based systems are expensive and don’t offer integration outside their select partners.

I have more ideas, stay tuned!

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