Monday, September 22, 2008

Africa's Leading a Computer Revolution We Cannot Ignore

Shackled to our desktop and laptop computers, we in industrialized nations might just be missing the next computer revolution. Wouldn't it be deliciously ironic if developing countries leapfrogged ahead of us by using inventiveness born of the need to make-do with less? It might very well already be happening in the form of mobile-phone-based computing.

With the advent of the iPhone, Americans have begun thinking about the broader potential of mobile phones, but in the developing world, especially in Africa, mobile phones have become the computers of choice. Joel Selanikio, star of the video above and a new hero of mine, calls it the "invisible computer revolution."

He notes that at the end of last year, developing countries had created an international network of wirelessly connected computers--mobile phones. While we think of them primarily as a medium for voice (and increasingly typed chat) conversations, Africans are making them much much more. Selanikio says the "one laptop per child" effort might just be left in the dust as the size of the mobile phone network continues to explode. He points out that sub-Saharan Africa, where neither laptop nor desktop computers are at all common, is the fastest growing cell phone market in the world.

Another new hero of mine, Nathan Eagle, an MIT research scientist, points out that Africans are jumping at the chance to learn mobile phone programming to develop the kinds of applications uniquely suited to meeting everyday needs in their own countries--needs no American or European programmer is likely to envision.

There's plenty here for the U.S. government to ponder. An easy question: Why can't the Census Bureau manage to move its citizen survey onto fancy handheld computers, while Selanikio's tiny nonprofit has been able to make an easily user-modified free public health survey software now being used on cheap cell phones all over Africa? Why hasn't the U.S. disaster response system put Selanikio's EpiSurveyor (about which more below) into place on every emergency health responder's cell phone? Why aren't federal agencies bringing smart African programmers here to teach them how to better serve low-income Americans via cell phones or having Eagle set up programs to teach mobile programming to youngsters in need of bootstrapping here at home?

Selanikio's certainly no stranger to the federal community. He's a former Centers for Disease Control epidemiologist, Public Health Service officer and chief of the Health and Human Services Department post-9/11 command center.

DataDyne, Selanikio's nonprofit organization, has created open source software that makes mobile phones into public health survey tools. The EpiSurveyor software first was designed to work on personal data assistants like the Blackberry or Palm, but now is moving to cell phones. That's huge in Africa, where mobile phones are huge.

With more than 280 million mobile subscribers in 2007, Africa had an overall cell phone penetration rate of 30 percent, according to Africa Telecoms News. There are more than 3 billion mobile subscribers worldwide, a 35 percent penetration rate. The African mobile explosion might seem surprising, but phones there are relatively cheap--as little as $20 new and much less used--and 75 cents can buy 10 minutes of off-peak calling in Kenya, for example.

Many who can't afford even those low rates simply buy a card to plug into someone else's borrowed, shared or rented handset. Phones are becoming a vital means of exchange. M-Pesa is an example. The service allows far-flung Africans to pay cash to a phone dealer in one town, who sends a code to the intended recipient of funds. That person or business redeems the code for cash from another M-Pesa dealer. The service, run by mobile carrier, Safaricom, Ltd. (owned by British multinational Vodafone), signed up 1.6 million users in the year after its March 2007 launch. Economists believe the opportunities created by mobile phone expansion cause economies to grow, perhaps by as much as 0.6 percent for every 10 percent increase in mobile penetration.

And that brings us back to Dr. Selanikio, who noticed the horribly inefficient and slow paper-based health information systems of the developing world. The obvious answer was to take advantage of mobile phones. His EpiSurveyor can be easily downloaded and adapted by national health ministries and their field workers. The system obliterates the need for error-prone data entry by hand and for paper.

It helped Kenyan health officials prevent a polio outbreak in 2006, when a refugee from violence in Somalia carried the disease into a Northeastern province after it had been eradicated 20 years earlier. Officials used the program to decide where vaccinations should be given and to control supplies.

And Nathan Eagle wants many more such applications to be developed by Africans themselves. His Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles program offers a variety of mobile phone programming classes in 10 sub-Saharan African countries. It also is teaching courses in creating applications based on cell phone text capabilities. And it operates txteagle, which connects Africans with cell phones and extra time with companies seeking simple text-based help, such as Nokia, which seeks African translation assistance, or health agencies seeking more effective ways of delivering services. The companies pay for the aid.

It's not hard to think up ways federal agencies could use such a service to improve their own services while helping people receiving Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance at the same time. Not surprisingly, Google already has figured out there's a market here, though not the mobile phone angle.

C'mon, Uncle Sam, here's a chance to grab the reins, head up another revolution like the Internet and find some efficiencies and much needed infusion of income for the growing number of hard-hit Americans. What's not to like?

Friday, September 19, 2008

Gamers Make Good Citizens

Nearly every American teenager between the ages of 12 and 17 plays computer, Web, portable or console games. Those who play them together in the same room are more often to become civically and politically engaged. It seems counterintuitive given games' bad rep as violent, addictive and isolating, but that's the chief finding of a new study by the Pew Internet and Life Project and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Released Sept. 16, "Teens, Video Games and Civics" finds that half of kids play online games with people they know offline and that almost two-thirds of them go online for political information, are committed to civic participation and have raised money for charity.

What accounts for this surprising twist on the common perception of gaming? Something Pew calls, "civic gaming experiences." While the study found that 63 percent of teen reported encountering aggressiveness, and 49 percent ran into hateful, racist and sexist activity while playing games, 85 percent also saw other players step in to stop the bad actors. This helping behavior is one of the experiences that inclines teens toward good citizenship, Pew reported. Others include playing games that teach about social problems and issues or that invoke moral or ethical decisionmaking and those that require running communities, cities or nations or organizing groups or guilds.

Another indicator of deeper civic engagement is game related social interaction, Pew found. Seventy percent of players who read or visit Web sites about games, review them and discuss them online also go online to get information about politics or current events. This group also is more interested in politics than gamers who don't contribute to online gaming communities.

What's more, while educational opportunities promoting civic and political involvement tend to be centered in affluent white schools, civic gaming is much more equitably distributed. Income, race and age were unrelated to the amount of gaming experience; only gender was, with 81 percent of boys, but only 71 percent of girls reporting frequent or average civic gaming experiences.

As a nation we might be bowling alone and participating less, but it looks like kids are gaming together and getting involved.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Get Your Free PowerPoints Here!

Brilliant! PowerPoint users rejoice!

Here's a great data visualization tool we'll all benefit from and we can have a voice in creating it. While I'm referring here to a new tool, "We Build Your Presentation," I'm pretty excited about it's home, "The Big Money," too. It's a smart-looking and -sounding new business news site from the folks at Slate.

This isn't the first nor will it be the last Web site to offer viewers free and easy PowerPoint slides, but with Slate's pedigree, it's probably going to be one of the best.

What I love about features like this one is their emphasis on making important data understandable and putting it within reach of, well, everyone, or at least everyone who can get to the Web. TBM's version has the added crowdsourcing advantage of letting users vote on what data they'd like to see clearly displayed. Since I am on a National Academy of Public Administration panel creating an augmented reality game to engage college students about the national debt crisis (I know, I know, sounds impossible), I would like to see TBM start tackling that, especially the likely outcomes of the path we're on, those of the presidential candidates and those suggested by the "experts." (Why do I have the nagging feeling that crowdsourcing might just beat all these options?)

Here's TBM's editor, James Ledbetter, explaining "The Big Money" and the new presentation builder. I've already added the site to my bookmarks bar, give it a once over!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Flying Real UAVs From a Virtual World

By now, we all have a mental image of how unmanned aerial vehicles are flown. Some young military service member sits closeted in a small, dark room with lots of camera and data feeds displayed on glowing screens and guides the Predator or other bird with a flight stick from thousands of miles away. But that's not quite right and omits perhaps the most important part of the experience: the intense, continuous attention to a sometimes unchanging scene over many hours and the degree of concentration and patience and visual acuity needed to "see" whatever it is the UAV is looking for and/or at.

So much information and attention are involved, in fact, that it takes not one, but two pilots to operate each drone.

Robert Kaplan captured some of the grim reality in a terrific September 2006 story in The Atlantic, "Hunting the Taliban in Las Vegas." Here's a look from his visit to a camouflaged trailer at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada where two Air Force pilots were flying a Predator over Afghanistan:
"There were grim, colorless computer bays in freezing, pulsing darkness—a three-dimensional world of flashing digits from light-emitting diodes. Like sub drivers, Pred pilots fly blind, using only the visual depiction of their location on a map and math—numerical readouts indicating latitude, longitude, height, wind speeds, ground elevation, nearby planes, and so forth. The camera in the rotating ball focuses only on the object under surveillance. The crew’s situational awareness is restricted to the enemy on the ground. Much of the time during a stakeout, the Pred flies a preprogrammed hexagon, racetrack, bow tie, or some other circular-type holding pattern."

Soon, this scene will change. The trailers likely will be abandoned, probably in favor of one or more 10-foot-by-10-foot-10-foot rooms with projectors illuminating all four walls, the ceiling and floor. Pilots likely will wear special glasses to render the projected images into a 3D immersive virtual environment. And they will control not one but several, possibly as many as eight, UAVs at the same time.

An Iowa State University team is developing the virtual environment in hopes of reducing the mental fatigue pilots suffer while monitoring a tangle of information on a welter of screens. Inside the room, pilots will see their UAVs, the airspace around them and the terrain below, as well as feeds from instruments, cameras, radar and weapons systems.

The 3-D audiovisual stereoscopic facility lives at ISU, where lead researcher on the project, James Oliver, heads the Virtual Reality Applications Center. The C6, as the wrap-around virtual display is known, was refurbished over the last several years thanks to Air Force funding. But it's used by many other federal agencies, as well.

The National Science Foundation is sponsoring Meta!Blast, a research application to let people walk around in plant cells to see what happens when researchers make molecular changes.

The National Guard wants to use C6 to let soldiers do battlefield walk-throughs before missions or deployments.

A combined Air Force and Iowa National Guard project, Virtual Battlespace, pulls together data about about land- and air-based forces and targets and sensor feeds and permits views from multiple perspectives. VRAC is working on a multi-touch table to serve as a controller for UAVs in the 3D space.

C6 has myriad commercial applications as well, but what lights up my imagination is its potential for helping people visualize data and the effect of human interventions. Given a complete enough simulation of the real world, walking through it should let users see relationships and consequences the might not otherwise imagine in urban planning, medicine, ecology, and who knows what else. Embedded Technology magazine has a fuller treatment of current uses here.

Nota Bene: You can find the articles I used in writing this post on the left column of the blog under the heading, "Recommended Reading." From now on, I'll be posting there links to stories and Web pages I find intriguing, informative and useful in my explorations of virtual government. The widget is courtesy of Publish2, a terrific journalism project by my friend Scott Karp, the wizard of Web 2.0 and beyond. By all means, have a look at P2.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

YouTubing the Office

Coming soon, to an office near you, Web video about your job and workplace--a private YouTube just for your organization.

Google Video for business, launched Labor Day, allows any company, agency, nonprofit, you-name-it to host its own internal YouTube for the enterprise. For a mere $50 a seat, Google will give an organization a secure spot to store videos created by employees, the same viewers and ease of uploading as YouTube users get, but the videos are not available for the public to see.

Without a doubt, many employees soon will be viewing, rather than reading, quarterly reports, messages from the agency head or CEO, instructions, emergency missives, training and more. Heck, the Office of Personnel Management might just film the snowfall as evidence the next time it closes the government in Washington! Just like YouTube, this new app lets viewers rate and comment on videos, no doubt giving rise to a whole new form of office etiquette: artfully responding to videos of higher-ups. Hint: rate 'em high!

As easy as it is to use YouTube once you've got video to share, it's now becoming just as simple to shoot the stuff. Macs come with built-in video cameras--just tilt the screen and shoot. And the new Flip video camera is supremely user-friendly and lets amateur Spielbergs just plug it into the USB port and upload directly to YouTube and now to YouTube for business.

To be fair, there is another company in this market, a 2007 startup called Veodia, but it's hard to imagine Google won't own the space now that it has entered it.

For a workforce as large and far-flung as Uncle Sam's, this promises to be a huge boon for communications, if agencies adopt it. And who knows, with the right acquisition strategy--say a Networx contract for Google--agencies might just get YouTubed for a song. If the District of Columbia can afford it . . .