Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Pens Vs. Pandemics

Digital pens could prevent the next Avian Flu or West Nile Fever.

How's that? Yep, digital pens. You might have heard some of the growing buzz among tech writers about a new one, the Pulse from a company called Livescribe. Essentially they are devices that look like standard pens but use digital cameras, wireless positioning technology or special paper, even digital recorders to let users capture, store and transmit to their PCs whatever they have written. You can learn about the technology in detail from "Uniting the Paper and Digital Worlds," a new article in "Computing Now" from the IEEE Computing Society.

For those of us who take notes for a living, having a pen that can upload our scribbling to a computer in searchable form is a godsend. But for African farmers and herders, it's a matter of life and death.

Especially in Southern Africa, keeping livestock alive and healthy is both a struggle and an economic and human imperative. Some 60 percent of the population there depends on livestock production to survive. Not only is demand for livestock products growing within Africa, but African countries increasingly depend on livestock exports to fund development.

But until recently, the region has lacked the means to keep livestock free from diseases that could devastate herds and flocks and, by spreading to humans, could result in pandemics. Veterinarians are few--Malawi, for example, has none in its rural areas. Transmitting data about animal health to the government was tough without Internet access or even well developed phone systems. In many cases it took months. And in that time, infections could take a terrifying toll.

In Johannesburg, South Africa, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization Regional Emergency
Livestock Officer Fred Musisi and Phil Fong, the UN Regional Data Information Coordinator, struggled to overcome the communications problem. Fong learned of a digital pen that could transmit data via cell phone or the Internet when he faced a similar data reporting problem while working on the South African census. The pen did the trick then, so the two men applied it to the livestock crisis.

Here's how Financial Times described their experiment in a Sept. 21 story on
The solution, provided by Xcallibre, a subsidiary of the South African company Data World, used digital pen and paper technology from Anoto that could collect the data as the workers wrote it down, and then transmit it over the mobile network to a central server. An 18-month pilot, which received funding from the South African government, was run with 35 field workers in five countries: Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania.
A UN Food and Agriculture Organization report quotes Musisi on the pilot program's success: “If there is a case of rabies or an outbreak of a deadly disease, a field worker can send the detailed surveillance data immediately only using a mobile. Worst case, if there is no mobile phone network nearby, the field worker has to move to a location with network or must find the nearest Internet connection. But no longer do they have to drive hours back to a capital city before the information can be confirmed."

According to the report, HIV/AIDS program workers now are mulling how to apply digital pen surveillance. Having tested the approach in countries with the toughest terrain, poorest communications infrastructure and worst conditions in Africa, Fong and Musisi expect it will be easily adopted elsewhere in the region.

And as I did in my last post about African computing ingenuity, I found myself thinking once again about how much easier it would have been to use digital pens for the 2010 Census than the handheld computers that have caused such disarray.

Working Virtually [UPDATED at 12:13 p.m.]

Talk about your multi-tasking! I'm writing this post while simultaneously attending the Cognos Virtual Government Forum and chatting with a Grant Thornton staffer whose virtual booth I stopped by while passing through the virtual exhibit hall at the virtual forum. Whew! Enough virtual. Henceforth let's stipulate that most places I refer to in this post exist on the Web, not in the real world.

I wrote about this forum for's blog recently, so I felt I had to attend at least some of it. Now I am waiting for the opening address by John Kamensky, late of the Clinton administration's National Performance Review and now of IBM's Center for the Business of Government.

Meanwhile, this seems an appropriate moment to muse about working in another virtual environment, Second Life. Erica Driver, a former Forrester analyst, has set up a new analysis firm called Think Balm, focused on the immersive Internet. Better to find out what that means from her here, but in short, it's all things 3D and virtual online. I found her work at Forrester to be smart and insightful, so I've continued following her as the new firm evolves. She is a tad more sold on immersive spaces for work than I am, but refreshingly, her enthusiasm is buttressed by facts.

Just a few days ago, Driver blogged about a new study suggesting that work-related teaching and learning, collaboration and meetings all can be done effectively in Second Life. The Social Research Foundation, a nonprofit, surveyed 1,298 Second Lifers who participate in the foundation's First Opinions Panel and found 16 percent of them use the virtual world for work. A third of those folks said more than half their time in Second Life is spent working. More than a third reported using the environment not just to collaborate, but to work together on visualizing data and concepts in 3D, 17 percent use it for recruiting and interviewing and 12 percent for managing real-world systems, Driver reports.

The study, along with her own work, makes Driver bullish on enterprise adoption of the immersive Internet:
ThinkBalm foresees that enterprise use will be mainstream in five years. The main reasons for this are 1) convergence of hardware, software, and network bandwidth, which make immersive technologies accessible on a widespread basis, 2) the prevalence of social networking, which allows Immersive Internet experts and advocates to find each other and share ideas, learnings, and best practices, and 3) an economic downturn, which will favor IT investments that result in hard dollar cost savings.
One important caveat: Driver is writing here not just about Second Life, but about immersive environments in general. She is tracking two dozen sellers of such platforms.

Skeptics (like my friend and colleague Allan Holmes, Executive Editor of continually call for proof that people actually learn as well or better in virtual settings than in brick and mortar classrooms. It's a legitimate request, and one that academia is beginning to address. Perhaps the best work has been done at Stanford Medical School, where researchers have found that "virtual [emergency department] environments fulfill their promise of providing repeated practice opportunities in dispersed locations with uncommon, life-threatening trauma cases in a safe, reproducible, flexible setting."

And now, there's research from Penn State suggesting that solving problems in a virtual space might take a bit longer than in the real world, but can come up with better solutions. Researchers set up 10 teams working face to face, 10 teams teleconferencing and 12 teams in Second Life.

Using a mathematical problem finding and solving video trainer, the groups had to figure out how to rescue an injured eagle. Even though they could only communicate via text and had to learn how to use the keyboard to move their avatars, the Second Life teams came up with the most accurate answers.

Nothing hugely definitive yet, but lots of intriguing hints that Driver might just be onto something.

On the other hand like many people who visited the Cognos forum, I never was able to attend John Kamensky's talk. I kept getting an error message whenever I hit the "attend" button. The support folks told me to download and updated version of Flash, but doing so would have meant I had to close all my browser windows. That would have prevented me from writing this post and a host of other things, hence eliminating any advantage of attending a conference virtually instead of physically. Ah well, I suppose I could have gotten hung up on the Metro, too!

THIS JUST IN: Just received an email from high-end consulting firm McKinsey about a new study, "How IT Can Cut Carbon Emissions." Though they didn't consider the use of immersive environments, the implication is clear from what they did discover: "We studied the possibility of reducing emissions by “dematerializing” physical goods and processes through telecommuting, video conferencing, Internet shopping, and downloading content rather than using paper, CDs, DVDs, and so on to covey it. We found that these kinds of substitutions cut emissions significantly—by 0.5 metric gigatons a year."

It's not the kind of savings that can come from making manufacturing, electricity grids, buildings and truck fleets more efficient, but it's nothing to sneeze at either!