My first 911 call – lessons for open systems

So this Saturday morning, on my way downtown to conduct a negotiation workshop for several wonderful people in Vancouver’s environmental NGO community, my friend Rikia and I were stuck behind a white 16 cubic foot box van that began weaving very erratically (I mean, into oncoming traffic erratically).

After some initial hesitation I made my 911 call ever.

(As an aside, I think I’m a pretty lucky guy to have made it to the age of 31 before feeling like I was in a situation where I had to call 911 – and frankly while this situation was dangerous, I myself was never in danger)

During the call I was struck by how patient and restrained the operator was. Although he never sounded cavalier, nor did I pick up any sense of urgency – likely a tactic to ensure callers stay calm. In addition, I noticed how the operator never doubted the underlying veracity of my story.

This observation got me thinking about a post I wrote a while back about how 911 is a perfect example of how public services already use open source principles. Accepting this argument, my 911 experience actually affirmed some things  I’m sure many open source veterans already know.

Any open system (and many closed ones) rely on a community of people to provide it with important data (e.g. where eradic drivers are, or where critical bugs may exist in the code). Since people often come into the 911 community (or an open source project) with a problem or concern they are likely predisposed to be agitated. Consequently, I suspect that open systems that retain the most users are those that are predisposed to assuage them and keep them calm. Indeed this probably not only improves retention (increasing the likelihood a caller/bug register calls again) but likely also helps maintain the sanity of those helping them. So lesson one: a little patience is essential for long term success.

In addition, I mistook the road the truck was driving on not once but twice (talk about testing one’s patience!). However, if the operator was annoyed,  I didn’t know it. While it is important that 911 get accurate information a worse outcome would be for a call where the operator and the caller get into a dispute – if a user has a negative experience with 911 they may never call again – significantly diminishing the value of the system and increasing the risk to society. Obviously the stakes aren’t quite so high for an open source software project, but putting a premium on accuracy above all else probably isn’t wise either. While we want users to be accurate – a system that penalizes inaccuracy so heavily that they never return is probably not wise either. So lesson two – always lead by trusting, but of course, verify.

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