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".

InSTEDD in a very brief TV interview on Fox

This morning started very early, with a live Fox Business News interview about InSTEDD that you can view here. The interview was done within the fascinating Computer History Museum just off the Google Campus in Mountain View, and really, really early in the morning.

Fox was apparently pleased with the few minutes and the producer of Fox Business, Gary Kaye, came up afterwards to request a little more interview time in the future. He said he was surprised to see such an effective combination of tech and humanitarian support and wanted to know more. Stay tuned.

(Again, the link is here.)


Friday, May 29, 2009

A brief (but useful!) Fact Sheet about InSTEDD

Wow. Over the past few weeks, interest in InSTEDD and in our tools: GeoChat, Mesh4x, Evolve, and the Innovation Lab, with a slew of additional integration requests to our advisory staff, have each really taken off. We find we're receiving about a four requests a week for some sort of work somewhere in the world. Over the past few days, for example, we've had conversations about opportunities in Israel, Pakistan, Georgia (the one next to Belarus, not the one with peaches), Italy, and Tajikistan.

To get a jump start on some of these conversations, and to wrap our description into a neater package, we've developed a Fact Sheet. It's brief, just a two-pager, plus a page around a few of our achievements. To keep it brief we've minimized some of the very cool work being done by Taha Kass-Hout in Atlanta, and the separate work being done by Romdoul Kim and the Innovation Lab team in Cambodia, but it's enough to get the flavor of our skills.

Please feel free to download the Fact Sheet here, and don't hesitate to contact me, or anyone at InSTEDD, if there is some project you think might be interesting for us to do together. We're always watching for useful humanitarian support opportunities and we enjoy the conversations.

You can reach me, as always, at Rasmussen@InSTEDD.org, and on my direct cell at 360-621-3592.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

New H1N1 Swine Flu Citizen's Guide Update

The new Pandemic Influenza Citizen's Guide, edited by Sarah Booth and Kelsey Hills-Evans to incorporate information around the recent H1N1 (Swine) flu outbreak, is now posted here.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Using InSTEDD's Evolve for Tracking and Collaborating around the 2009 H1N1 Flu Event:

Last week, InSTEDD stood up a workspace to further aid experts and responders collaborating around emerging reports related to the 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza event.

The workspace is based on InSTEDD's Evolve, an online application which allows a team to collaborate around multiple streams of information to assess, characterize, and respond to an event with the assistance of automated services.

Our Evolve Space offers a comprehensive set of collaborative features, including

  • commenting,
  • tagging,
  • mapping (both user generated and automated),
  • the relating of multiple alerts to each other,
  • searching and filtering (by keyword and by location),
  • specifying a time window,
  • adding attachments,
  • subscribing (currently in the form of a web-friendly format known as GeoRSS and through an email subscription),

and more.

The Evolve Workspace is also equipped with an intelligent process (sometimes referred to as a machine-learning algorithm) that "learns" from anything provided by human experts (e.g. adding a keyword or a tag, or correcting the incorrect mapping of an item). This intelligent process quickly and accurately learns to follow advice from expert humans and we're showing a 95% confidence level for the automated selections based on previous tests. The system soon starts suggesting tags, as well as correcting itself, and gradually offers even better results over time.

Have you an H1N1 alert or item you like to share with the community? You can easily contribute that alert by clicking the "Add Item" feature on our Evolve H1N1 workspace.

If you have a background in public health, international relations, diplomacy, social work, or emergency response and are interested in contributing actively to this effort please contact us at info@instedd.org.

For low volume announcements, you can follow us on Twitter. As I also mentioned in an earlier blog, we're following very rapid news events related to H1N1 epidemiology through Veratect on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/Veratect.

Related Links:

Collaborative Analytics and Environment for Linking Early Event Detection to an Effective Response

Best Poster Award for Improving Public Health Investigation and Response at the Seventh Annual International Society for Disease Surveillance Conference

Thursday, April 30, 2009

InSTEDD Citizen's Guide to Pandemic Influenza (the Flu Manual)

InSTEDD has been very happy to host the Flu Manual on our site for the past year or so.

The manual, called "Pandemic Influenza Preparation and Response: A Citizen's Guide", is widely considered the best of its kind and has been reproduced in at least five languages across the globe. You can find it here. It's currently being distributed within NASA, the NFL, the Los Angeles Federal Executive Board (the largest in the nation), WebEOC, Verizon, and quite a few other locations that we're hearing about second-hand. There have been more than a thousand downloads of the Guide since the outbreak began last week and we're very pleased it's found such wide acceptance.

Although this outbreak is an H1N1 variant from Mexico and not the H5N1 avian influenza from Asia that we've all been worried about for the past few years, it's still spreading very rapidly and it's killed quite a few people in Mexico. Fortunately, that level of lethality is not yet being seen elsewhere in the world but, from our point of view, preparation is easy and sensible and we should simply do it. It's good public health practice.

The information in the current Guide is very solid for that kind of preparation. It's been designed for any pandemic influenza (not just swine or avian). It gives a great look at:

  • the lessons of past pandemics,
  • what the stages of a pandemic look like,
  • how to prepare for social isolation techniques,
  • how to care for a sick family member,
  • how to prepare oral rehydration solutions,
  • what to stockpile for an extended period at home,
  • how to volunteer within your community,
  • what measures the CDC recommends,
  • where to get current information as the pandemic unfolds,
  • how to prepare a home medical record of care
and much more.

The historical viewpoint you can gain from the Guide is particularly helpful. These first weeks have always been a very difficult period in an epidemic as public health staff try to sort out who, what, where, how much and all the rest. In my opinion, the World Health Organization response, as well as that of the US Center's for Disease Control in Atlanta, has been as thoughtful and as measured as anyone could hope for in the current communications age. The avalanche of information is very difficult to sort and verify, yet it's difficult to have systems in one place talk to systems in another place, and it's always really hard to get information from the developing world. The public health professionals who have not slept in much of a week have our admiration and our thanks.

Although we publish it, the Guide is not an InSTEDD creation. It was written by two Stanford University students, Sarah Booth and Kelsey Hills-Evans, with guidance on medical issues from several physicians including David Heymann, MD (then Assistant Director-General of the World Health Organization in Geneva), Professor Dennis Israelski (previously Director of the Fellowship Program in Infectious Diseases at Stanford University Medical Center) and Grattan Woodson, MD.

The Guide is free and can be distributed to anyone without limitation. It's covered under a Creative Commons license and we encourage reproducing it anywhere and everywhere.

At the moment, WHO has established Pandemic Level 5 (out of a possible 6), though the absolute numbers of patients and their level of illness appear to be realtively mild throughout much of the world. Patients associated with Mexico seem to have had a more severe clinical spectrum and we'll watch to see whether that greater severity appears anywhere else.

Internally we're following the notifications on Twitter from Veratect (www.Twitter.com/Veratect) and reading the really exceptional work that Janet Ginsburg is doing on TrackerNews.net. Don't miss her hair-curling blog on factory farms and their infectious disease risks at www.TrackerBlog.InSTEDD.org.

It's an interesting time to be involved in outbreak response. We're doing quite a bit, but we've been asked to keep it private so we will. I'll mention though that, as for so many within the outbreak response community, there has not been much sleep within the InSTEDD team over the past week.


Thursday, March 26, 2009

InSTEDD in the news...

We've had an exceptionally good month due to the release into beta of our software tool called GeoChat. We're testing it with users in Asia and in Africa and so far it's been well-received.

As a result of the news percolating out, InSTEDD has been covered, one way or another, by the local affiliate's ABC Evening News, by CBS Radio, by Business Week, Lancet, Nature, New Scientist, and more than thirty blogs.

For those who might like to check out a sample of what people are saying about GeoChat, a free and open source SMS and mapping-based tool designed for group messaging under stressful conditions, here you go: You can see the ABC Evening News television broadcast here, the Nature article here, the CBS Radio article here, and the New Scientist article here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Brilliant Transition

Tonight I learned that our inspiration at InSTEDD, Dr. Larry Brilliant, is stepping down from his position as Executive Director of Google.org.

From INSTEDD's perspective there is quite a bit of history in that event. Larry's TED Prize led to the formation of this organization, including our odd name (an inside joke during the TED acceptance speech), and our admirable charter to use technology to improve detection of, and response to, crises. He hired me as CEO in 2007 and, for the past 18 months that I've known Larry, he's been one of the most kind, intelligent, intense, and creative men I've ever had the pleasure to know. I'll miss his voice at the helm of Dot-Org.

It's valuable to remember that Larry's TED Wish, for "Better Early Detection, Better Early Response" against emerging infections and natural disasters, has sparked ideas all over the globe, including the suite of capabilities we've introduced here at InSTEDD.

Larry encouraged us to look very closely at the problems he was worried about. He had spent years in India and knew well that nothing much could be designed to help villagers report diseases unless someone with a technical background went out to LIVE there, helping them understand the art of the possible while immersed with them in the reality of the day. Naturally enough, ideas for other people work best when designed with those people. We need to fit our suggestions into their needs, their culture, their workflow, and their desires. Users need to own the process, the design, and the result. He has never let us forget that and his concern has paid off handsomely.

He recognized that, to be effective, we needed to share the problems of unreliable power, dangerous insects, dirty water, leftover landmines, cross-cultural suspicion, illiteracy, cold, heat, and all the rest. But he also knew we'd find in those villages courage, and intelligence, and discipline, and sacrifice, and a passionate desire to do the best possible job, even when resources are maddeningly scarce and lives are lost for truly stupid reasons. A small scratch becomes an abscess. A mosquito bite carries Yellow Fever. No gasoline for the ambulance. Tires buried in mud. No aspirin. No chlorine. No clean gloves. No toilet. No soap. A thousand little events no longer seen in the modern world but that can make a trivial problem fatal where we work.

At InSTEDD, being true to Larry's TED Prize Wish, we've worked hard on determining just how Larry's "Better Early Detection, Better Early Response" could be achieved. As we researched the problem in Geneva with the World Health Organization, in Atlanta with the Centers for Disease Control, in Cambodia, Bangladesh, Ghana, Peru and elsewhere, we found one constant, ubiquitous, and overwhelming problem: Collaboration. People with information couldn't share it with those who needed to know. Either it was too hard to report that sneezing chicken, or some system couldn't read that file type, or the message was buried invisibly in the morass of other things people had to read and was lost before a team of experts could think about it.

We looked around carefully and saw that plenty of people were doing open-media analysis. We saw that many others were doing cellphone-based communication. We recognized that we needed to stitch it all together and make sense out of it all. We needed to link community health workers to everyone that needed to see their information. We needed to translate that information between all of the systems where experts were trying to keep track and couldn't. We needed to help those experts get together to think about that one small "something" that didn't look right.

And that's what we've done. GeoChat, Mesh4x, and Evolve are in beta and in use in useful corners of the world. We now have health workers talking amongst each other in Mongolia and in Cambodia and in Ghana. We have world-renowned epidemiology software for the first time able to pool information from different locations by forming a "mesh", measurably improving the statistical power of the analysis. That mesh synchronization is working for HIV Clinics in Africa as well. We have global monitoring offices in world capitals using our analytical techniques to watch information pouring in, spot anomalies, and notify the real humans that something's wrong, while automatically generating a set of ideas about what the problem might be. It's really good stuff.

We've also developed a work plan and a curriculum to teach what we know. We've made sure anyone working with us can take full ownership of our tools by making them free and open source, and by carefully training our users in software languages and techniques so that they can alter the tools whenever they like to meet their changing needs. We've noted, happily, that we're slowly reversing brain drains and beginning to build little Brain Trusts.

We've also discovered how much useful science and technology is invisible to the humanitarian community and started a website to make those links more visible. The site is at www.TrackerNews.net, and even NPR has taken note of how valuable the site is becoming.

And from work stimulated by Larry Brilliant's original TED Wish, our conference poster describing our new tools for analysis won First Place in the global competition at the International Society for Infectious Diseases last December. It's a nice achievement.

So, with much gratitude to Larry, we're taking the spirit of his TED Wish, his intelligence, and his humanity, mixing in a few genius engineers of our own, and adding a staff deeply committed to science, common sense, and social justice to make "Better Early Detection, Better Early Response" a reality.

Thank you, Larry. Your vision has shaped our work. We're quiet, of course, (like all good public health and disaster preparedness efforts), but it's going very well, we're very grateful to you, and the world is again a little better off through your efforts.


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Introducing TrackerNews.net

Over the past few months, InSTEDD has quietly launched a new website that focuses on humanitarian and health technology: www.TrackerNews.net. It is ready now for a little noise!

As we've worked on research & development over the past year, we've found ourselves at once delighted and daunted by the amount of interesting and useful information on the web – most of which isn’t available through news feeds. We decided to create an aggregator that would add a layer of context and go beyond RSS feeds, weaving together stories about humanitarian work, science, technology and “one health” (human, animal, plant and planetary – it is all of a piece).

TrackerNews is the result and it’s designed for the kind of humanitarian work we do. Now, we know that there are plenty of very good news and technology aggregators and we have not added another (in fact, we link to several aggregators in Tracker's Resources section). Rather, we're using TrackerNews to highlight ideas, innovations and developments that can – or could – make a difference, and we do that with a little background and perspective

We take to heart science fiction author Robert Heinlein’s words of 40 years ago: “Specialization is for insects.” We understand that very few people have much time to read outside of their specialties, but we think we have created TrackerNews as a resource that delivers a much-needed breadth of perspective. We hope it becomes a place where serendipity is a regular feature; a place where specialists routinely discover relevant work in other fields, and where "need" and "know-how" intersect.

Science journalist Janet Ginsburg took the lead developing the site and now serves as its editor and blogger (http://trackerblog.instedd.org). Janet designed TrackerNews with intelligence, experience, and a contact list that's terrific at helping us assess the world’s humanitarian, technical, medical, and scientific developments.

TrackerNews has a few twists. For example, headlines are not organized by topic, nor is there a standard navigation bar. Rather, a story on a single topic (whether news articles, research papers, blog posts, websites, book reviews, e-books, software downloads - print, audio, video) is grouped with background material in a single silver box to offer context and explain significance. This makes for a somewhat eclectic mix on any given day, but it’s designed to provide readers, especially those who tend to select themselves into “silos” of expertise, with a multi-disciplinary perspective.

Take a look at this Flickr slide show to get a sense of the range of subjects covered on TrackerNews: Slide examples. I think you'll agree we're covering some fascinating stuff, and that much of it you've never seen elsewhere.

Although groups of links tend to be driven by news events, in general TrackerNews is not for reporting “this-just-in!” stories. Nor are stories on Tracker ranked by popularity, which we think tends to create a self-reinforcing skew. Links are selected for their bearing on a particular subject and for their utility. Academic papers are sometimes included in groupings to make it easier for interested readers to see original research and find contact information.

Headlines start either in the green bar banner at the top, or at the top of the left column. They snake through the columns over a couple of days, exiting off the lower right and into a searchable archive. Research articles and other special content sport a red “carrot.”

Scroll down “below the fold” for the Resources section. This is, and always will be, work-in-progress, but even at this early date, there are hundreds of links. Whenever we find an aggregator that goes into more depth on a topic, we link to it and give a prominent position in the category. The mission of our TrackerNews site is to connect you to the information you need.

We also have a “Custom Tracker” tool in development. Here is a link to a rough sketch. (Custom Tracker example) Basically, it is a DIY site map for the collective knowledge of a group or an event. The back end user interface is both WYSIWYG and drag’n’drop (think iGoogle homepage edits).

I'm really pleased that TrackerNews, even in this very early version we’ll call v0.1, has already generated some positive discussion on the value of the crossover dimension. People working emerging infectious disease surveillance are commenting on rapid disease detection technologies developed by electrical engineers. Human rights advocates are looking at communications tools developed to combat wildlife smuggling. The cross-pollination is working.

As most people reading this know, at InSTEDD we're deeply interested in improving collaboration and information-sharing through free and open source tools that we design with close input from our users. We apply that bedrock approach in everything we do. Please take a look at www.TrackerNews.net and let us know what you think. Send feedback to Janet at editor@trackernews.net.

On behalf of everyone at InSTEDD, we look forward to hearing your thoughts.

- Eric Rasmussen