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2011-06-09

Are we selling soda?

Our team is having an interesting discussion about how we provide value to our customers. Views are all over the place and sometimes conflict with each other. As Elwood P. Dowd once remarked, "Well, an element of conflict in any discussion's a very good thing. It means everybody is taking part and nobody left out." Believe me, no one is left out.

When complete and operational, our system will support biosurveillance as defined by the federal government in Homeland Security Presidential Directive 21, as "the process of active data-gathering with appropriate analysis and interpretation of biosphere data that might relate to disease activity and threats to human or animal health – whether infectious, toxic, metabolic, or otherwise, and regardless of intentional or natural origin – in order to achieve early warning of health threats, early detection of health events, and overall situational awareness of disease activity." Okaaay, how do we do that? How do we deliver it? How do people engage with those analyses and interpretations?

One metaphor that may be helpful is making and selling soda. It's a liquid that comes in bottles made of glass, bottles made of plastic, and aluminum cans--at least when you think of the finished product. It also comes in containers of syrup used by soda fountains to blend their own soft drink by adding carbonated water at the moment of mixing. That lowers the cost of transportation and delivery radically, provides a fresh product, and avoids all the disposal issues of the cans or bottles. (I began my professional career as a busboy in a restaurant where I picked up such arcane knowledge.) But putting the soda in a glass can only be part of the path to the customer. Depending on the place, the soda can be added to ice cream for a fun, if fattening, experience. It can also have rum as its other active ingredient--equally fun although more immediately risky. Some people have even used it in cooking to sweeten dishes or add flavors they hope will delight the palate. So, the ubiquitous soda may be delivered in a wide variety of ways, mixed in with other things, and enjoyed by a person throughout a lifetime as their tastes evolve.

Our commodity is information derived from many sources across the biosphere. We divide it into the following data domains:

These are meant to represent the variety of sources of data we use. These can all tell us about the potential for threats to our health. The physical domain is the most basic since it involves data about such things as the weather, air quality, and water safety. The biological domain means all living things that are not human beings or non-human animals--such as bacteria and viruses that may infect us and make us sick. It also includes all foods that are plants or derived from plants. The clinical (non-human) domain includes veterinary data on companion animals who live with us, other animals for food production, or wildlife. The clinical (human) data is what most of us think of when we mention data relating to human health, but often is not seen in this type of spectrum. The organizational data domain brings in government agencies, businesses, and other groups that may have data of interest. These can touch the other domains--none of them are meant to be exclusive--and may include data coming from economic activity such as purchasing prescription drugs or over-the-counter medications. Finally, everyone's current favorite, social media. These sources include household names like Facebook and Twitter, but also other esoteric sources as MPHISE.

This construct is only meant to suggest the variety of data that are useful for biosurveillance. Our approach is to be inclusive in the variety of data we use, but recognize that not all data is of equal utility. Therefore, our approach is to evaluate a data source on what it can tell us about emergent health threats. Some of these are only background to other data the help us develop our information. Some are significant on their own in their ability to inform us of these threats.

The data are only the raw materials, however. We use them with a set of analytics tools to derive information from the data. That information, itself, is still only a part of the full value we can provide. Information needs a context for interpretation and meaning. Taken all together we can decide what is going on and act--or not--as the situation requires.

I think that we can look at soda as a metaphorical product. Like our information, it's delivered in a variety of ways, sometimes served by itself, sometimes mixed in with other things. It can stand on its own in its own container or be put into another person's container that suits their purposes. Getting the formula right is a necessary prerequisite for satisfaction but may not stop there. We should also enable people's use of our "soda" in their own containers and concoctions. Therefore, we need to develop our product so it can be used by everyone in every way possible. Easily said, not so easily done. More later.

2011-06-05

History Is Speeding Up?

I'm an information technologist. There, I said it, and I'm glad. It's such a relief to get that off my chest.

I have worked in IT since the 1980s, which makes me a very old guy in that space. Back then, there were not nearly as many of us as there are now. I guess you could say that, defined by the use of IT tools and enhancing them, there are now many millions of information technologists world-wide. The spread of skills, knowledge, and abilities in IT across the globe has accelerated the pace of development and even accelerated the rate of change. (A nod to the literature spanning Thomas Kuhn to Ray Kurzweil and thousands of other authors who have charted the transformations.) My experience in this space is more applied and personal.

I began with IBM punch cards, usually waiting hours for my job to run--often at 3 AM because that's when the computer science students finally went home and mere students in the humanities could get time on the mainframe. My frustration level bounced from irritated to furious during these sessions. Irritated because it was 3 AM and furious with myself when a misplaced comma in line 13 caused a syntax error, stopping the job. The fury was because it usually took 45 minutes to get back the cards and a green-bar printout showing me the error of my ways. Then another 45 minutes to submit the cards and see the result.

I took several such courses across my undergraduate and graduate studies, never really mastering any of the arcane science. I vowed not to touch a computer again for the rest of my working life as a historian. I was confident that my oath would stand since I used pen and paper, or at most a typewriter. Life then took a turn and things did not follow my plan.

Within three years of finishing my dissertation, I owned a microcomputer and was using it to develop a fund accounting system for the historical society where I was working. I backed into IT by working at a non-profit that only had six employees, so everyone had to wear multiple hats. Because I had some coursework in programming languages (and was the only one in the office who had), I began helping out with the membership database. That turned into creating the accounting system. That turned into developing an archival materials database. That turned into creating a database index to photographic archives. I found that I had become conversant in two languages not spoken by human beings but very useful for computers. In fact, I had come to see the fun and the potential of these technologies.

How does a Luddite find fun in technology? When I could see it work. The microcomputers and then the PCs that I worked on allowed me to find the issues in my programs within seconds (I've never been a great coder) and correct them. Each loop of coding, compiling, and execution supported my learning curve because I got better with each cycle. The difference between 45 minutes then 45 seconds and then 4.5 seconds from conception to execution helped me build my expertise.

Another phenomenon was taking place as I moved from the life of a scholar to a computer programmer. I shifted from machines that recorded data on floppy disks to magnetic disks to optical discs. All within a few years. The change in storage size and speed of response was exponential. I also moved from paper punch cards, to green monitors, to amber monitors, to color monitors over a few years. At one point, I wondered why anyone would want to have a color monitor. I saw the reason in a magazine advertisement that filled the page with random text but showed the message in red letters. De-cluttering the data to derive the message in color was better.

It seemed that I needed to replace my perfectly functional set of equipment with a new generation every three years or so. I was learning the paradox that information technology is a strategic asset that one throws away on a regular basis. That seems wasteful, but is not when properly considered. The changes in processing power (famously expressed by Moore's Law), size of storage, and resolution of display--just to name three--have kept growing at various rates from fast to very fast. The first magnetic hard drive I saw was the size of a modern washing machine, cost $250,000, and held 10 MB. Today, I can buy a 64GB SD disk for $120. That's a 6.4 million times increase in storage that can fit under a postage stamp. (Remember letters?) On another plane, my smartphone has more than 300 pixels per inch--twice that of previous versions. Without a microscope, I cannot see the pixels. The increase in power, capacity, and resolution has created a new set of technologies every 2 to 3 years. I had to upgrade just to stay in place.

The issue in play was not a technological arms race. It was remaining conversant with the rest of the field. If my version X code was to run on version Y, I had to move to the latest platform. Hence I became adept in relearning a language that had changed or even learning a new-to-me language. Everything I knew about IT has changed every five years, requiring me to constantly study, adapt, and transform my approach. Finally, the  new capabilities of the current version always outstripped the earlier ones by at least an order of magnitude. But there is more to say.

The changes transformed our approaches we networked computers into LANS and WANS, then again when we connected to the Internet. The capabilities of the Internet are still rapidly developing as we come to understand crowd computing (for good and ill) that brings millions of people together to contribute to a shared experience. The rise of these social spaces challenge the old notions of relationships and the definition of society. They seem to spring at us from nothing and become household terms faster than a baby learns to walk.

What does this mean to those who have invested in previous efforts in our field of biosurveillance? It means that old systems must be replaced by new. Sunk cost is an anchor dooming unchanging approaches to irrelevance. History is speeding up. One must change faster just to keep pace. Lewis Carroll's Red Queen was a prophet.