Greg Boone

Service design in the schools

My mother in-law was a PE and special ed teacher for about 30 years and during most of that time she was also a swimming coach in Sun Prairie, both within the school system and for local club teams. Since living in her house in Northern Wisconsin, I’ve been able to watch her process results after swim meets. She would typically come home from a meet with a bunch of paper and she was using a special computer to do something with all that paper, so I asked what that was. Boy, was the answer long and complicated.

Dubuque, IA is about 2 hours from her house outside of Madison and we spent almost the entire trip talking about swim data. It turns out the problem involves two competing technologies, “Colorado” and “IST.” One set of software ran the touch pads used for timing swimmers and data passed to the other which ran the scoreboards after passing through a piece of software called Meet Manager. Adoption of that software is inconsistent and some teams apparently keep track by hand. On paper. In pools.

Every weekend my mother in-law copied the meet results from her school’s copy of Meet Manager into an email she sent to a local newspaper reporter. I estimate she’s spending about three hours total pulling out these data to compose this weekly email.

I asked more questions: Can you export the meet data? What format do you get? Are you able to open it in an application like Excel or is the file a jumble of mangled text? How do teams share information and keep track of standings? How do students keep track of own their stats? Why hasn’t anybody built a better system?

The answers to these questions were encouraging, except for the last one. That answer was: “Because nobody cares.” High school swimming programs are small. The largest teams have a few dozen swimmers and a couple coaches and administration is largely decentralized and focused on more popular sports. While it’s not perfect, this system works and is mostly painless for the coaches, so the impact value might be low relative to available resources.

“Works” is a bit of an overstatement. If you’re an athlete, the only people with a record of your progress is you and your coach. If something happens to the Meet Manager computer or the printed-off records, it could mean an entire season’s records are lost. For my mother in-law that means manually backing up the data on her old, personal, iMac. So even if it’s low impact relative to the size of the budgets, there are only upshots to keeping better records: The coaches get easier management, student access could be self service, and the district’s athletics program gets an accurate, accessible record of their entire history.

Who’s going to build it?

Here’s an idea: turn your school’s computer club or computer science courses into a service design program. Spend a week or two trying to figure out the problem. Use open source research and design methods to figure out together what the biggest solvable problem is, and spend the rest of the term building, testing, and iterating. At the end of each week the students present their progress, and at the end of the semester you have a working minimum viable product.

A few weeks ago I tweeted:

And the responses were mixed. CFPB’s Adam Scott has done something like this, but many who responded thought it was a good idea that might never come to pass.

A lot of people are talking about teaching kids how to code. I don’t see a lot of people talking about teaching kids how to be on a design team and there’s a big difference.