All things service

My day job as clinical leader of a large children’s mental health centre in Ontario, Canada presents me with the constant challenge of working with other professionals to devise and resource treatment plans for children and youth with complex emotional, behavioral, and learning needs.

I have been trained formally in the philosophy of language, cognitive psychology, and experimental design and statistics, though at this stage of my life I would describe myself as self-taught. Most recently, I have been studying two domains connected to my professional work – the concepts of “service” and “network”  – with the  idea of specifying more clearly a popular but particularly slippery concept – the “service network”.

In one case study, I intend to examine a database of human services in Ontario that is maintained online at – and explore the “meaning” embedded in this sort of database using semantic web technologies, e.g.  the evolving Core Public Service Vocabulary of the European Commission and an ontology of government services included in a recent release of

This is a work in progress.

Originally I had thought about working away under these broad headings:

While these headings still represent reasonable divisions of labour for me, there are three distinct but just-close-enough-to-be-confusing senses in which the term “service” is used in the literature:

  • a software service, like the SSL/HTTPS service, that secures the transfer of data packets over the Internet
  • a “real” world service, like a banking service, that allows someone to pay a monthly utility bill at a local branch
  • a “real” world service that is mediated by a software service, like an online banking service, that uses the SSL/HTTPS service to allow someone to pay a monthly utility bill securely over the Internet

Early on, the metaphor “software as a service” inspired pioneers in computer science to explore and elaborate one concept (software) that was novel and abstract in terms of another concept (service) that was familiar and grounded in human experience.

In the past two decades, our understanding of the concept of software, the concept of service, and the metaphor “software as a service” have advanced tremendously. Indeed, an entire industry has emerged around “Software as a Service” (SaaS) in “cloud computing.”

Finally, in much the same way that humans have moved from using the metaphor “computer as a brain” to using as readily the metaphor “brain as a computer” – the metaphor “service as a software” is used as readily as the metaphor “software as a service” in our thinking.

Today the prime driver for clarifying the semantics of “real world” service comes from software engineering – and seeks to improve the design and deployment of Web services that are (somehow) meant to facilitate the delivery of “real world” services.

My original thought was to enlist the technologies of software services – e.g. service-oriented computing, service-oriented architecture, service-oriented semantics – to describe and model more clearly and formally the defining features of “real” world services – especially human services, like social assistance, mental health counselling, and so on.

I still believe there is great potential in this exercise – and in the closely related exercise of elaborating how software services can support “real” human services – though we are liable to miss the mark if we take the metaphor “service as a software” too literally.