Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Economist (again!), Fuse, and Chris Blow

Once again the Technology Quarterly section of the Economist has selected a focus on InSTEDD and our work in Asia, this time for sensors, sensitivity, and the use of mobile devices for data collection. The pleasant face you see on the GeoChat screenshot that opens the article is our Vice President for Engineering, Eduardo Jezierski, working within our Innovation Laboratory in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. More on the Lab below.

The article (which you can find here) quotes several informed and articulate sources, including staff at MIT and Path Intelligence, regarding the usefulness of mobile devices in general and our approach to data collection in particular. From my reading it's a fairly nice validation of our design and methods.

Incidentally, speaking of design and methods, many of you know we have a mesh synchronization tool called Mesh4x. It's getting used all over, from African medical clinics to the US Centers for Disease Control, but it's a programming tool, not really usable by ordinary folk.

However, we'll soon be talking more about our new Mesh4x interface client, Fuse, that will take our mesh synchronization capabilities and make them visible, intuitive, and usable by anyone who knows where their data resides. Mesh4x, our code library, works beautifully (we find a minor bug every few months and fix it) but it's been a developer's tool. Fuse will change that. Soon anyone will be able to specify an Excel spreadsheet here on my laptop, an Oracle database there on your server, a Google Earth KML layer on that PDA, a Microsoft Access table over in Atlanta, a MySQL database on your website's LAMP stack, and then press the Big Red Squishy Button that says "SYNC" and they'll all synchronize with each other across applications and across devices. I've watched pieces of that happen today and it's lovely to see. Even better is that, if access to the internet is broken or missing, it all can happen just over a stream of SMS text messages from a cellphone connected to a laptop. No internet at all.

This is very useful magic.

The Fuse synchronization interface design has to be very simple. Like all magic, that simplicity will mask a daunting complexity. One of the very talented people looking over the design of the Fuse interface is the remarkable Chris Blow. Chris has done beautiful work for our valued Ushahidi colleagues in the Open Mobile Consortium and he's now working within our Innovation Laboratory in Cambodia. Chris - a very impressive intelligence indeed - is just visiting InSTEDD, but while he's with us he's helping the Cambodian lab students learn techniques that will let them design user interfaces that make sense for their Cambodian customers. Take a look at his blog here.

Days like this are a part of the reason I love this organization. Yes, we're doing very good humanitarian work, using free and open source information tools that really surpass anything I'm seeing in the commercial sector, but what's really happening is that networks of truly remarkable people are forming around seriously hard problems facing the planet. Smart, passionate, selfless, creative people are finding a rewarding outlet for their need to be of service to humanity. Nice example of the Buddhist goal of "Right Livelihood".