Free The Library

In our post-industrial, Internet world, an ever increasing percentage
of the population has an ever increasing need for knowledge to make a
living.  This is why people have used the Internet’s search engines so
much, despite being frequently frustrated by the volume and irrelevance
of search results.  They may also be suspicious of the bias and
commercialism built into the results.  Most of all, people intuitively
grasp that search results are not the same thing as the knowledge they
really want.

Thus, if I had to point to a single service that
would dramatically raise the economic importance of libraries in this
century, it would be satisfying this need in a substantive and objective
way.

Yet, if you go to most dictionaries, you’ll find a
definition of a library like this one from the Oxford Dictionary:

“A
building or room containing collections of books, periodicals, and
sometimes films and recorded music for people to read, borrow, or refer
to”.

While few people would say that libraries
shouldn’t provide books, as long as people want them, most librarians
would point to the many services they have provided beyond collecting
printed material.

Nevertheless, the traditional definition
continues to limit the way too many librarians think.  Even among those
who object to the narrow definition in the dictionary, these two
traditional assumptions about libraries are usually unquestioned:

  1. Library services are mostly delivered in a library building.
  2. Library services are mostly delivered by human beings.

My
argument here is simple:  If libraries are to meet the public needs of a
21st century knowledge economy, librarians must lift these self-imposed
constraints.  It is time to free the library and library services!

This
isn’t as radical as it sounds.  If we look deeper, more conceptually,
at what has gone on in libraries, libraries services are about the
community’s reserve of knowledge and sharing of information — and
helping members of the community find what they need quickly, accurately
and without bias.  I’m proposing nothing different, except expanding
the ways that libraries do this job.

The first of these two
assumptions is the simplest one to abandon.  Although the library
building remains the focus for many in the profession, in various ways,
virtual services are available through the web, chat, email or even Skype.  (I’ve written
before about the ways that library reference services could become
available anywhere and be much improved through a national
collaboration.)

image

The second assumption – the necessity for a human librarian at almost all points of service — will be a tougher one to discard.

Consider,
though, one of the most important of the emerging, disruptive
technologies – artificial intelligence and machine learning – which can
supplement and enhance the ability of librarians to deliver information
services well and at a scale appropriate for the large demand.

My hope is that, working with software and artificial intelligence experts, librarians
will start creating machine learning and artificial intelligence
services that will make in-depth, unbiased knowledge guidance and
information reference universally available.

Doing that
successfully as a national project will enable the library as an
institution, if not a building, to reclaim its role as information
central for people of all ages.

By the way, the use of artificial
intelligence in libraries is not a new idea.  In 1991, Charles W. Bailey
wrote an article titled “Intelligent Library Systems: Artificial Intelligence Technology and Library Automation Systems”.

During
the last several years, there have been a few experiments in using
artificial intelligence to supplement reference services provided by
human librarians.  In the UK, the University of Wolverhampton offers its
Learning & Information Services Chatbot”.

image

A few weeks ago, the Knight News Challenge selected the Charlotte Mecklenberg Public Library’s DALE project with IBM Watson and described it as “the first AI enabled search portal within a public library setting.”

In a note that is very much in accord with my argument, they wrote:

“Libraries
are the unsung heroes of the Information Age.  In a world where
everyone Googles for the right answer, many are unaware of the wealth of
information that libraries have within their physical and digital
collections.…  DALE would be able to analyze the structured and
unstructured data hidden within the public library’s vast collections,
helping both staff and customers locate the information needed within
one search setting.”

Despite the needs of library patrons, so far these examples are still rare for a couple of reasons.

Some
people argue that libraries shouldn’t and maybe can’t compete with the
big corporations, like Apple and Google, in helping people find the
knowledge they need.  As I’ve already noted above, many users experience
these commercial services as a poor substitute for what they want.

In
any case, abdicating its own responsibility is a disservice to library
patrons and the public who have looked to libraries for objective,
non-commercial information services for a very long time.

There is
also a fear that wider use of artificial intelligence to help provide
library services might put human librarians out of work.  While that is
not a concern that librarians generally discuss publicly, Steven Bell,
Associate University Librarian of Temple University, wrote last month in
Library Journal about this very subject – the potential for artificial
intelligence to diminish the need for librarians.  He called it the “Promise and Peril of AI for Academic Librarians”, although the article seemed to focus more on the peril.

This
is the fear of every worker faced with the onslaught of technology and
the resulting prospect of delivering more output in fewer hours.  With
artificial intelligence and related robotics, workers in industries
where demand is not accelerating – like cars – may very well have
something to worry about.

But the reality for librarians is
different.  The demand for information services is accelerating so that
even in the face of greater productivity per person, employment
prospects shouldn’t diminish.

Indeed, if these library services
become real and gain traction, increasing demand for them and for the
librarians that make them possible will also increase because the
knowledge creates a demand for new knowledge.  To use an ungainly and
somewhat distasteful analogy, it is like an arms race.

My concern
is neither about corporate competition nor unemployment.  Rather my fear
is that the library profession will not easily abandon its self-imposed
limitations and will not expand its presence and champion new
technology for its services.  If those limitations remain, the public –
having been forced to go elsewhere to meet their needs – will in the end
devalue and reduce their support for libraries.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/145256275028/free-the-library]

When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?  Still?

In 2009, I wrote a blog titled:  “When Will Citizens Be Able To Track Requests To The Government?”

It’s time to see if much progress has been made, but first some background …

The
people that public officials call citizens or voters or residents are
not single-minded civic machines.  Most of the time, they are consumers
and workers outside of the public sector.  And so what happens outside
of the public sector affects their expectations of what should happen in
the public sector.

One of the more frequent parts of a
consumer’s life these days is being able to track things.  Here are just
a few of the many diverse examples, almost all of which have been
around for at least a few years: track your Domino’s pizza
order from the oven to your front door; track shipments, at all stages,
through FedEx or UPS or even USPS; track the path of a car that you
ordered via Uber; track an airline flight so you know when to leave for the airport to pick up a relative or friend.

Why
not enable citizens to track their government transactions in
mid-stream?  While suggestions of this kind are often proposed to
increase transparency of government, the tracking actually serves a much
simpler goal – to reduce frustration on the part of the citizen.

If
people can see where their request or application is, they will have a
lower sense of frustration and a greater sense of control.  If the
citizens could also get an estimate of how long it usually takes to go
through each step of an approval process, all the better.

image

In the public sector, this kind of tracking was very rare in 2009.  The standout was the UK, for example enabling residents to driving license applications.

Since
2009, we’ve seen some more ways to track requests and applications.  
This has been especially true of requests under various freedom of
information laws, such as the US Justice Department’s.  However, the
average citizen is not submitting FOIL requests – I suspect that most
come from media employees.

You can track your request for US government grants
– again something that the average citizen isn’t focused on.  The US
Internal Revenue Service IRS2go app lets you track the status of your
refund, which is likely to be of interest to a much larger number of
people.

While it is difficult for me to judge from this distance
how well it actually works, certainly one of the broadest and most
ambitious efforts to let residents track their requests is in India, not the US or Europe even.

image

Alas, in New York City, the government’s website tells you call 311 to track applications for Food Stamps.

In South Carolina, a “Multi-Agency Partnership Portal
provides a reasonably good way of applying for various health and
support programs.  Although the website refers to seeing the status of
the application, it’s not clear from the documentation how you’d do that.

Colorado’s version of the same kind of website, called PEAK, makes it very easy to track status.

image

Although Indiana also does this, its website seems much more complicated than Colorado’s.

Even
the City of San Francisco, which aims to be a technology leader, has
had its difficulties in enabling people to do the simple tracking of,
for example, building permits.  Its website refers back to a partial implementation two years ago, but no recent update.

Even worse, one of the examples from 2009 was from the District of Columbia, where you could the track the status of building permit applications.  If you try that now, you’ll get this backtracking message:

“DCRA
has removed its permit status check page also known as Online Building
Permit Application Tracking (OBPAT) application from its website.

"DCRA
recognizes that some constituents are disappointed about this
decision.  In short, DCRA found that-the information was too often
unreliable and resulted in misinformation to constituents.  This is
totally unacceptable, DCRA is hopeful that the site will eventually be
restored, but the data issues must be resolved before it is.  DCRA is
committed to transparency, but transparency is helpful when accurate
information is available.  It is DCRA’s goal to have truthful, accurate
communication from staff, and the public access sites need to reflect
that as well.”

Clearly, there are still many situations where people want to track their interaction with the government and cannot.

(Of
course, the ultimate goal, in so far as possible, is to complete those
transactions instantaneously online, like the fishing license app that Michigan makes available.  Then the tracking problem disappears, but that’s a subject for a future blog post.)

So the answer to the question?

In
the last seven years, there has only been a little progress here and
there in some areas of government, but not the massive change that
technology makes possible.  

Consider an analogy.  While
every government, for instance, expects that it needs a formal budget
document, most apparently don’t yet have an expectation that they need
to make it easy for people to find out the status of their requests for
common services.  In this Internet age that is no longer something new. It’s time to get moving on it.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/144503228624/when-will-citizens-be-able-to-track-requests-to]

Quick Takes From The Recent News Stream

No time this week to write a full blog, so instead I figured I’d just
provide quick takes on some random items that have crossed my virtual
desk – on immigration, whether 65 is middle age, the ironic science museum and combining technologies.

Immigration to the US

Metrocosm has
put up an animated map show immigration to the US since 1820.  
Considering the current debate in the Presidential campaign, it offers
some under-reported insights.  See http://metrocosm.com/animated-immigration-map/

image

Is 65 Middle-Aged?

The Marist Poll is
frequently cited for its surveys of voters.  Dr. Lee Miringoff, the
Director, has for a few years used his own birthday to assess how the
public views age.  He just turned 65, so the question of the year: Is 65
middle-aged?  Turns out that most American think so.  You can see his
explanation in this video http://bcove.me/vcbs1k25 and the Marist report last week “5/3: 65 Stands Strong as Middle-Aged”

So
in an election year in which the three remaining Presidential
candidates are older than Dr. Miringoff, it does seem that 65 is the new
45!

The Ironic Science Museum

Then, in sort of a follow up to my previous report
about rising seas in Miami Beach, I read this story filled with irony.
Miami is in the process of building a glorious science museum, which
has had the usual kind of fiscal and management issues.

But Tuesday this week an article
appeared with this headline: “Miami’s Doomed Frost Museum of Science Is
a Monument to Ignoring Science … What do you get when you celebrate
science and ignore scientists?  Fish in the lobby.”  It shows how rising
seas will come right into the lobby of the museum – and we’re not
talking about the planned aquarium.

Depending on how you look at
it, this story is somehow sad, funny, and ironic – and a warning for
all people with ambitions that touch the waterfront.

image

Combining Technologies

With all sorts of new
consumer technologies that are connected to the Internet, it’s only a
matter of time and creativity for people to integrate those technologies
in useful ways.  Case in point is Jason Goecke, the hacker who used his
Amazon Echo – thank you Alexa! – to get his Tesla to drive itself out
of the garage.  You can see for yourself in this video: https://youtu.be/CAP3DbyOtGE

He posted his story at the end of last month here:  http://www.teslarati.com/tesla-model-s-voice-command-amazon-echo/

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/144246816920/quick-takes-from-the-recent-news-stream]

Why Do We Still Have Tax Brackets?

We’ve just passed the tax deadline and reflecting on it I was vexed
again by this question: why do we still have these tables of brackets
that determine how much income tax we’re supposed to pay?

I can
understand there was a time, many decades ago, that the government
wanted to keep things simple so each person could easily determine the
tax rate that would apply.  And I know that the continued use of tax
brackets is not the biggest problem around.  However, tax brackets are
just another symptom of government’s failure to see the widespread
deployment of technology in the public and its failure to use basic
technology for simple improvements that are appropriate in this century.

Brackets
cause some problems.  Politicians who advocate a single flat tax rate
often start with the argument that their approach would be so simple
people could just send in a postcard.  Putting aside the merits or
demerits of a flat tax, for the moment, there is something retro about
telling people to use a postcard in 2016.

image

From 2000 to 2015, postcard usage dropped by more than two thirds, an
even greater drop than in first class envelope mail.  The Washington
Post even had a story last year with a headline that asked “Are postcards obsolete?

Where would we even find these postcards?  Would the IRS mail them to us?  🙂

Those
who argue for flat taxes or lower taxes in the higher brackets
implicitly say that people will work less if it means an obvious jump in
tax rates by shifting into a higher bracket.  There are also those who
advise people how to avoid this problem, as did a Forbes magazine article
last month which started out saying that

“the key tax challenge facing
retirees: being helplessly catapulted into rising tax brackets [because
our] tax code is progressive.”

Indeed, with the current set of progressive tax rates, your percentage of tax goes up as your income goes up.

image

But we no longer have to assume we live a world limited to paper-based tables.

There
is nothing in today’s world that requires the use of brackets in a
progressive tax system.  Indeed, a system based on a formula instead
would eliminate the negative impacts of bracket-avoiding behavior that
critics of progressive taxation point to.

There are a few possible
formulas that might work.  The most complex would be a logarithmic or
exponential curve, which a computer can nevertheless easily compute.  If
you want to make it even simpler, another formula would set the
percentage tax rate as a percentage of income.  (Remember school math?  
TaxRate = m * Income where m is some small fraction.)

No matter
the formula, computers can handle it.  The IRS could make a formula
available on line or over the phone — just enter your taxable income and
it will tell you what you owe.  It can be built into the calculator
function of cell phones.  There are tens of thousands of coders who
could finish this app in an afternoon.

Of course, the IRS says that it now offers an app, but it doesn’t take advantage of the computing power of the mobile device nor help you figure out the amount you owe.

image

While
we’re at the effort to bring government into the modern technological
era, let’s also consider where those taxes go.  Why do we still have
fixed budgets?

The budget reform of the 1920s was developed in a
world that did not have the ability to dynamically make calculations.  
So every year, government officials make their best guess on the
condition of the economy, the demand from an unknown number of
potentially needy citizens and other factors that determine the ebb and
flow of public finances.  Since the budget process is lengthy, they make
this guess well ahead of time so they could be trying to predict the
future more than 18 months ahead of time.

A rolling budget would
work better by automatically adjusting each month to the flow of revenue
and the demands on government programs — and all you need is a big
spreadsheet on a not-so-big computer.  However, the budget makers would
have to decide what their priorities are.  For example, for every
percentage of unemployment, we need to put aside $X billion dollars for
unemployment insurance payments.  It would take work to do this for each
of the promises the government makes — although maybe not as much work
as trying to guess the future.

(Of course, the real obstacle to a
rolling budget model is that policy makers would be forced to make more
explicit their priorities.)

I could go on, but you get the idea.
Buying billions of dollars of technology products is not enough.  
Government needs also to bring technology into its thinking and design.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights
Reserved

[Note: this is an update of my blog
post in 2012]

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/143790789669/why-do-we-still-have-tax-brackets]

Tech Frontiers On The Farm

Farming is a remote, not well understood, occupation for most people
who live in cites.  So the technology frontiers being pursued by farmers
is one of the most interesting and unreported stories.  But I’ve only
touched on this topic before, especially in my report about very
innovative areas of rural Netherlands.

In this post, I’m writing
about some things on the agricultural tech frontier that have caught my
eye.  But this only is a sample – one that doesn’t even cover biological
engineering on the farm.  There is so much going on in ag tech that a
single blog post cannot capture it all, even if it were limited to the
US which is certainly not the only place this technology is developing.

As Cory Reed, vice president of John Deere – a company most of us associate with traditional tractors – has said:

“We are on the cusp of the next innovation wave of digital agriculture.”

The Tech Products

image

The
various tech products cover everything from sensors and drones to
assess the condition of soil and crops to sensors and locators on
livestock to robotic farm machinery that does what was once back
breaking work.

More diverse farm robots may emerge from the program that the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) US Department of Agriculture announced a few months ago.

The
app phenomenon has also come to agriculture.  LambTracker is a
smartphone app to track sheep.  ThermalAid measures heat stress on
cattle.

You don’t even need to have a large farm to benefit from this developing technology.  For example, there’s the Edyn Smart Garden System with its sensor stick.

And for more urban farmers, there is technology for vertical, indoor farms from a completely automated one to one that cuts out any transportation costs by being placed in a store.

Big Data On The Farm

image

With
all the data from sensors and drones collected on farms, it was only a
matter of time before the big data movement hit the world of
agriculture.  As an example, Farmobile, has opened up its Data Store in Minnesota, where “farmers now have the ability to sell their agronomic and machine data to vetted third parties.”

Another company, the Farmers Business Network,
hopes to help farmers by enabling them to share their data.  In that
way, FBN proposes to “access agriculture’s largest database of real
world seed performance” and thus “unlock profitable, actionable insights
from all your data”.

Startups & Investments

If you’re not
involved in agriculture or rural development, you might nevertheless be
thinking that this might be a good undiscovered market to invest in.  
Sorry, you’ll have to get in line.  Other investors are ahead of you
already, even in places where these investors are often hidden – for
example, in San Francisco where AgTech2050 held its World Agri-Tech Investment Summit last month, in Silicon Valley where the Third Annual 2016 Silicon Valley AgTech Conference will be held next month and in New York City’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel which is hosting the Global AgInvesting 2016 conference today.

One
recent estimate points to $4.6 billion in investments in ag tech
startups last year, a doubling from the previous year.  Just last week, one such company, PrecisionHawk, raised $18 million in funding from Verizon, Yamaha and NTT Docomo.

While
there will always be new investment opportunities, the more positive
part of this story is that this helps to ensure that the billions of us
on earth will not go hungry.  For the future of the countryside, this
new technology adds to the attractiveness of rural life and the strength
of the farm economy.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/143481039969/tech-frontiers-on-the-farm]

Number Sense & Nonsense

As
you will know from the news media, business executives and the techno-sphere,
we are in the age of big data and analytics.
(Disclosure: I too am part of this trend with my forthcoming course on
leading change in the Applied Analytics Master’s program at Columbia University.)

For
those of us who have been practitioners of analytics, this attention is long
overdue.  But there is a certain naiveté
in the breathless stories we have all read and in many of the uses – really misuses
– of analytics that we see now.

Partly to provide a more mature understanding of analytics, Kaiser Fung,
the director of the Columbia program, has written an insightful book
titled “NumberSense”. 

image

Filled with compelling examples, the book is a
general call for more sophistication in this age of big data.  I like to
think of it as a warning that a superficial look at the numbers you
first see will not necessarily provide the most accurate picture, any
more than the first thing you see about an unpeeled onion tells you as
much as you can see once it is cut.

image

Continuing this theme in his recent book, “The End Of Average”, Todd
Rose has popularized the story of the Air Force’s misuse of averages and
rankings after World War II.  He describes how the Air Force was faced
with an inexplicable series of accidents despite nothing being wrong
with the equipment or seemingly with the training of the pilots.  The
Air Force had even gone to the effort of designing the cockpits to fit
the exact dimensions of the average pilot!

image

As Rose reports in a recent article:

“In
the early 1950s, the U.S. air force measured more than 4,000 pilots on
140 dimensions of size, in order to tailor cockpit design to the
‘average’ pilot … [But] Out of 4,063 pilots, not a single airman fit
within the average range on all 10 dimensions.  One pilot might have a
longer-than-average arm length, but a shorter-than-average leg length.
Another pilot might have a big chest but small hips.  Even more
astonishing, Daniels discovered that if you picked out just three of the
ten dimensions of size — say, neck circumference, thigh circumference
and wrist circumference — less than 3.5 per cent of pilots would be
average sized on all three dimensions.  Daniels’s findings were clear
and incontrovertible.  There was no such thing as an average pilot.
If you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually
designed it to fit no one.”

Rose criticizes the very popular
one-dimension rankings and calls for an understanding of the full
complexity, the multi-dimensional nature of human behavior and
performance.  As a Harvard Professor of Education, he puts special
emphasis on the misleading rankings that every student faces.

He shows three ways that these averages can mislead by not recognizing that:

  1. The
    one number used to rank someone actually represents multiple dimensions
    of skills, personality and the like. Two people can have the same
    score, but actually have a very different set of attributes.
  2. Behavior and skill change depending upon context.
  3. The
    path to even the same endpoint can be different for two people. While
    they may look the same when they get there, watching their progress
    shows a different picture.  He provides, as an example, the various
    patterns of infants learning to walk.  Eventually, they all do learn,
    but many babies do not follow any standard pattern of doing so.

It
is not too difficult to take this argument back to Michael Lewis’s
portrayal in Moneyball of the way that the Oakland A’s put together a
successful roster by not selecting those who looked like star baseball
athletes – a uni-dimensional, if very subjective, ranking.

Let’s
hope that as big data analytics mature, there are more instances of
Moneyball sophistication and less of the academic rankings that Rose
criticizes.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/143113012009/number-sense-nonsense]

The Last Big Barrier To A Rural Renaissance: Healthcare

I’ve written before about the ways that small towns and rural areas
can take advantage of broadband Internet connections to gain access to
global economic opportunities, educational and cultural resources, even
the virtual equivalents of coffee shops that used to be only available
in big cities.

Perhaps the biggest remaining barrier to a 21st century rural renaissance is access to world class health care.    

With
that in mind, President Obama’s Rural Council brought together about
three dozen experts to the White House complex last week to identify
innovative ways of bringing health care to the countryside and to
establish a “community of practice” that will help the Obama
administration and hopefully its successor to address the problem. 

The
group included:

  • Federal officials from various agencies, including Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack
  • Leading broadband providers and the Rural Broadband Association’s CEO, Shirley Bloomfield, and Joshua Seidemann, Vice President of Policy (who helped organize this meeting)
  • Exemplary providers of tele-health, and
  • A
    couple of other experts, including myself (in my role as Senior Fellow
    of the Intelligent Community Forum and director of its New Connected
    Countryside initiative)
image

This “convening” was led by Doug O’Brien, Senior White House Advisor for Rural Affairs.

It
was noted, although not news to those around the table, that the nearly
60 million Americans who live in rural areas were hit especially hard
by the Great Recession.  Their local economies have taken longer to
recover, still not back to pre-recession employment levels.

But the comparisons of rural versus urban health care were most striking.  Here are just some highlights:

  • Rural areas have higher rates of disease and higher mortality rates than urban areas. In 1980, the rural mortality rate was 2% worse than the urban rate and now it’s 13% worse.
  • While
    approximately one in six Americans live in rural areas, only one in ten
    physicians practice there. There are even fewer medical specialists per
    capita.
  • Suicide rates are higher and getting worse in rural
    areas. Along with a growing drug abuse problem, this is a reflection of a
    growing need for mental health services.

None of these
medical problems are helped by the fact that rural residents are poorer
and less likely to have health insurance.  Of course, given the lack of
sufficient nearby medical resources, rural residents need to travel
further – often hours further – than their urban counterparts.

In
the Internet age, that last problem should be able to be mostly overcome
with health care delivered remotely.  So most of the meeting was
devoted learning about the use and deployment of tele-health care.  In
this post, I won’t be able to describe all of them or any one of them in
detail, but here are some that stood out to me:

  • Using cost-effective solutions, like iPads, Vanderbilt University Medical Center
    has established a network of rural tele-health services. This even
    includes virtual group sessions for people with drug addictions.
image
  • The
    US Department of Veterans Affairs has pioneered the use of virtual ICUs
    in its rural clinics and facilities. With a fully developed set of
    tele-health tools, to the patients and local staff, it’s like having the
    expert ICU doctor at the bedside.  As a byproduct of these virtual
    ICUs, the medical staff at these facilities are also getting an
    education in newer and better medical techniques.
image
  • Through East Carolina University School of Medicine, there is now a tele-psychiatry network in North Carolina. The relatively low cost of making tele-psychiatry available is helpful, given the increasing need for mental health services.
image

Obviously,
many rural areas do not yet have the broadband which is necessary to
deliver these services.  But there are clearly broadband providers,
especially telecommunications coops, which are up to the task.  We heard
about just two of those who had completed gigabit deployments to every
household in their rural areas in Kentucky and North Carolina.  One of
those, Peoples Rural Telephone Coop was reported on in a Daily Yonder article last month, “One of the Nation’s Fastest Networks Serves Two of Its Poorest Counties”.

Even
before the recent recession, there were long term trends in rural
America that called out for a different and new economic strategy.  In
his closing remarks, Secretary Vilsack noted that, since 1950,
agricultural productivity has increased a hundred fold on 27% less land
and with 22 million fewer farmers.  So the challenge today is what
opportunities and quality of life can the remaining families have.  

The
people around that table last week and ICF believe that a revived rural
community can be built upon the intelligent and creative use of
technology – and improving access to quality healthcare is just one very
important example.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/142294161516/the-last-big-barrier-to-a-rural-renaissance]

In The Cloud?

We’ve been hearing about the promise of cloud computing for some
time. There are finally enough companies that have used the cloud to
have experienced the reality of cloud computing and learned some
interesting lessons.

So, recently, at its March monthly dinner meeting, the local chapter of the national association of CIOs (SIM) had a panel of IT executives discuss the migration to the cloud:

  • Len Peters, the University Chief Information Officer and Associate Vice President at Yale University
  • Larry Biagini recently retired as Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of GE
  • Jeff Pinals, Senior IT Manager for Enterprise Financial & HR Applications at XL Catlin
  • John Hill, COO of Virtustream, with responsibility for Cloud Platform Delivery and Global Data Center Operations.

I
moderated the panel.  Since there’s been so much written on this
subject, I’ll just focus on three revealing, yet not widely reported,
insights.

Security

There has been obvious
concern about security in the cloud, especially when a large amount of
data is held off premises.  Larry Biagini pointed out that those
security issues are already shared with enterprises that do not use the
cloud.

The old security moat around the enterprise is not a
modern defense in a world in which all computers are effectively
connected to each other and both employees and even trusted customers
are executing transactions through their personal devices.  A more
intelligent approach to security prepares the enterprise for its
migration to the cloud – whether it be the public cloud or a cloud that
someone thinks is private or hybrid.

image

The Cloud Project

Some panelists described the
process they used to select a cloud vendor and migrate to cloud
computing.  The tendency was initially to think that the whole story was
about following the usual steps in any IT project.  But Jeff Pinals
pointed out that migrating to the cloud is more than just another IT
project.  A good example is understanding how cloud computing will may
have an uncomfortable challenge from the organization’s culture – and
planning to address that issue.  Specifically, even in or perhaps
especially in companies with the best IT shops, non-IT managers are used
to a high degree of flexibility and accommodation to all sorts of
customizations.  That’s less likely to happen with cloud computing where
a SaaS (software-as-a-service) vendor cannot efficiently run the
operation by being so accommodating.

Return From The Cloud

Although
cloud computing is still a new experience for some companies, already
the question has been raised as to where this leaves an enterprise once
they’ve made the move.  The issue was highlighted by the news just
before this panel spoke that, after using Amazon Web services since it
started many years ago, Dropbox was leaving the Amazon cloud and
creating its own network and data centers.  See, for example, “Why Dropbox dropped Amazon’s cloud
published the day of our meeting.  It’s worth noting that even with the
large resources and technical talent of Dropbox, it took them more than
two years to make this re-migration from the cloud.

The panelists
indicated that there may be several reasons why moving or dropping out
of some other company’s cloud service would be desirable.  Perhaps it is
a competitor or potential competitor.  Perhaps its service wasn’t what
was expected and the decision makers were so burned by the experience
that cloud computing is off the table for now.

In Dropbox’s case,
perhaps the company is just sizable enough that the value added and
extra cost of using a cloud computing vendor no longer made financial
sense.

Whatever the reasons, after a couple of years, an
enterprise’s IT staff will also have migrated to a different set of
skills when someone else is handling the data center and related
operations.  The panelists noted that loss of data center skills may be
irreversible, at worst, or cost an enormous amount of money to rebuild,
at best.

John Hill ended this discussion that the move to cloud
computing requires a change in orientation about this loss.  Referring
to another utility we take for granted, he asked: Do you generate your
own electricity? Do you know how?

We need to realize that the
benefits of cloud computing have consequences.  Trying to return from
the migration is a bit like coming back out of the real clouds without a
parachute 🙂

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/141898219466/in-the-cloud]

Beyond The Craze About Coding

In last week’s post on the Coding Craze, I referred to the continuing
reduction in the need for low level coding – even as what is defined as
low level continues to rise and be more abstract, more separated from
the machines that the software controls.  I even noted the work in
artificial intelligence to create programs that can program.

All
of this is a reflection of the fact that pure coding itself is only a
small part of what makes software successful – something that many
coding courses don’t discuss.

Many years ago in the programming
world, there was a relatively popular methodology named after its two
creators – Yourdon and DeMarco.  While it has been mostly been
remembered for its use of data flow diagrams, there was something else that it taught which too many coders don’t realize.

There
is a difference between what is logically or conceptually going on in a
business and the particular way it is implemented.  Yourdon asks
software designers to first figure out what is essential or as he put it:

“The
essential system model is a model of what the system must do in order
to satisfy the user’s requirements, with as little as possible (and
ideally nothing) said about how the system will be implemented. … this
means that our system model assumes that we have perfect technology
available and that it can be readily obtained at zero cost.  [Note: this is a lot closer to reality today than it was when he wrote about zero cost.]

“Specifically,
this means that when the systems analyst talks with the user about the
requirements of the system, the analyst should avoid describing specific
implementations of processes … he or she should not show the system
functions being carried out by humans or an existing computer system. …
these are arbitrary choices of how the system might be implemented; but
this is a decision that should be delayed until the systems design
activity has begun.”

Thinking this way about the world operates
and how you want it to operate is the start of software design.  
Software design really has two, related, meanings – like C++
overloading.  

First, there is the design of the architecture of
the software and overall solution.  Diving into coding without doing
this design is what leads to persistent and embarrassing bugs in
software.  The internal design is also necessary to avoid spaghetti code
that is hard to fix and to improve performance, even in these days of a
supposed abundance of compute resources.

image

Second, there is the design of the interface that the user sees –
with all the things to worry about that we associate with the “design
thinking” movement.

(One way of planning software is to imagine
the software designer is a playwright, who is responsible for all the
parts of the play aside from one, the user’s part.  I guess this is more
like improv than a play, but you get the idea 🙂 )

So maybe in
addition to the coding class, the wanna-be software developer should go
to improv or drama school.  That’s a more likely path to knowing how to
generate the WOW! reaction from users that makes for software success.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/141545808566/beyond-the-craze-about-coding
]

The Coding Craze

A computer coding craze has taken over the country. Everywhere you turn, public officials from President Obama on down in the US and around the world seem to be talking about the need to train folks in computer coding.

Governors
and Mayors are asking their school systems to teach students how to
code instead of learning other subjects. Many people who had little
previous interest in computers or software – except as blissfully
ignorant users – have signed up for, often expensive, courses on
programming.

image

It’s not just in California or Seattle or Austin
(pictured), but back in traditionally less high-tech places on the East
Coast as well. Recently there were stories about coding classes in the
Borough of the Bronx in New York City and as far south as Miami.

There
may be good reasons to take these courses. A bit like the courses that
schools used to teach about how the car combustion engine worked,
learning to program may help people better understand how computers
sometimes operate.

As with any creative activity, at the start,
you can get a sense of accomplishment when witnessing your software
creation come to life — once most of the bugs are eliminated 🙂 You can
even reprise this feeling under special circumstances later on in your
career. But much of the work of coders can, in the long-run, become mind
numbing.

The opportunity to design and create a great new app is
like being invited to paint the Sistine Chapel. But the more frequent
opportunities are like being invited to paint someone’s apartment.

Don’t
get me wrong. As a long time software developer myself, I can say there
are many satisfactions for developers who have both the knack and
passion for software. But people who don’t have those attributes and
just do it like any other job will be frustrated too easily.

And, honestly, even the positive side of life as a developer is not what is primarily driving this coding craze.

Much
of the interest by public officials (like the governor of Arkansas in
the picture) as well as the people enrolled in coding classes is based
on their belief that these courses make possible employment
opportunities that will endure for decades in a world in which
traditional jobs have been automated or shipped overseas. Will it?

image

Surely, some people are going into coding just for an immediate bump in short-term income. Studies
on the relatively new phenomenon of coding bootcamps seem to support
this notion – that is for the 65% of students who graduated and are
working in a programming job. Even in those cases, the best results were
for students who graduated from the more expensive and selective
programs.

Yet, on balance, count me as a skeptic. I think this
craze is, well, crazy. In the long run, I don’t think coding courses for
the millions will lead to the affluent future and lifelong careers that
many proponents envision.

First, as I’ve alluded to, these are
not jobs that everyone who is learning to code will find satisfying. We
may be too early into this craze to know how many people go into the
field and last for more than a short while, but I’d expect the dropout
rate to be high.

Second, there is the low level nature of what is being taught – how to write instructions in a currently fashionable language. While most of the coding courses focus on currently popular languages, like Ruby and Javascript, many of their students do not understand how popularity in languages can come and go quickly.

Some
languages last longer than others do, of course. Through sheer inertia
and unwillingness to invest, there are still some existing programs
written in old computer languages, like FORTRAN and COBOL. But there
aren’t that many job openings for people coding those old languages.

Wikipedia lists a variety of languages that have been created over the last three decades, approximately one a year:

1980 C++
1983 Ada
1984 Common Lisp
1984 MATLAB
1985 Eiffel
1986 Erlang
1987 Perl
1988 Tcl
1988 Mathematica
1990 Haskell
1991 Python
1991 Visual Basic
1993 Ruby
1993 Lua
1994 CLOS (part of Common Lisp)
1995 Ada 95
1995 Java
1995 Delphi (Object Pascal)
1995 JavaScript
1995 PHP
1996 WebDNA
1997 Rebol
1999 D
2000 ActionScript
2001 C#
2001 Visual Basic .NET
2003 Groovy
2003 Scala
2005 F#
2009 Go
2011 Dart
2014 Swift
2015 Rust
2016 ???

So if all they learn today is the syntax of one language and lack a
deeper education, they may find that one skill to fall out of favor.

Indeed,
many of those students aren’t even being taught about the different
kinds of programming languages – even classes of languages vary in
popularity over time.

Instead, they are usually learning imperative languages, especially with a focus on low level procedures.

It
is also not clear that the popular languages are the best ones to even
teach basic coding, never mind understand software more generally.

Even
the idea that any language is good enough to educate students about how
computers work is misleading. Different classes of languages lead to
different ways of thinking how we can represent the world and instruct
computers.

And finally, the trend in software, in fits and starts,
has been to reduce the need for low-level programming. Originally, it
was a move away from “machine instructions” to higher level languages.
Then there were various tools for rapid application development. Today,
there is the Low-Code or even No-Code movement, especially for Apps.

You’ve
heard of the App Economy, another part of the promised job future?
Putting aside the debate as to whether the app phenomenon has already
peaked, with these low-code tools, fewer coders will be needed to churn
out the same number of apps as in the past.

And then over the horizon, computer scientists have been busy “Pushing the Limits of Self-Programming Artificial Intelligence” as one article states in its title.

Finally,
with this background, pure coding itself, even in past years, was only a
small part of what made software successful. And a successful long term
career in software requires an understanding of what goes beyond
coding.

But this is enough in one post to get many people irked, so I’ll save that for a future post.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/141088761737/the-coding-craze]

A National Library Service

Readers of this blog are aware that libraries have continued to adapt
to our evolving digital era. Most provide electronic materials, teach
people about digital literacy, help overcome the digital divide by
making Wi-Fi and even devices freely available, etc.  Some even support platforms for self-publishing.

But
libraries have yet to collectively take advantage of the Internet as a
national (even global) network that connects them all. This is
especially true for reference librarians.

This is not really a new
idea. There are a few examples of collaboration within state borders,
such as Florida’s Ask A Librarian.

image

More than ten years ago, going
beyond one state to the whole nation, the Library of Congress helped
create the QuestionPoint service to provide

“libraries with access to a
growing collaborative network of reference librarians in the United
States and around the world. Library patrons can submit questions at any
time of the day or night through their library’s Web site. The
questions will be answered online by qualified library staff from the
patron’s own library or may be forwarded to a participating library
around the world.”

Although it’s now part of OCLC, QuestionPoint
certainly hasn’t grown in use as the Internet has grown in use. Indeed,
the movement for collaboration among libraries seems to have peaked
perhaps ten years ago. This is despite the fact that the demand for
these services has increased, while the tools to meet that demand have
become less expensive. The tools for collaboration – from social media
to videoconferencing – have vastly improved and become more common
recently.

In a world where everyone is drowning in a sea of
information, reference librarians have a unique and valuable role as
guides – the captains of the pilot boats on that sea. However, without
collaboration, every library would somehow have to have reference
librarians on staff who can quickly be expert on all matters. That’s
clearly impossible and no library can do the job adequately all alone.

But,
in its last report on employment, the American Library Association
reported that the USA has 70,000+ paid librarians and 150,000+ other
library staff. Imagine the impact if they worked together and
collaborated, each person specializing in some – but not all – subjects.
Each of these specialist reference librarians, networked together,
would be available to patrons everywhere in the country.

In this way, collaboration through the Internet would enable each library to:

  • Promote economies of scale, both becoming more cost-effective and more valuable
  • Broaden the library’s resource reach to better serve its local residents

Maureen
Sullivan, Past President of the American Library Association and my
colleague in the Aspen Institute’s working group on libraries, has
stated the situation clearly:

“With a nationally networked
platform, library and other leaders will also have more capacity to
think about the work they can do at the national level that so many
libraries have been so effective at doing at the state and local levels”

Jim
Neal, former head of the Columbia University Libraries, current member
of the board of the Metropolitan New York Library Council and hopefully
the next President of the American Library Association, wrote four years
ago wrote an article whose message was clear “Advancing From Kumbaya to Radical Collaboration: Redefining the Future Research Library”. While his focus was on research libraries, his call for radical collaboration should be heard by all libraries.

With
that in mind, Ronna C. Memer of the San Jose (California) Public
Library, reflecting on her 25 years of librarianship, wrote in a 2011
issue of the Collaborative Librarianship journal:

“Although some
collaborative efforts have recently been curtailed due to rising costs,
it seems that more rather than less collaboration would be most
cost-effective to library systems in coming years. As distinctions
between types of library services (e.g. online vs. face-to-face)
diminish, so too do some distinctions between types of library systems
(e.g. academic vs. public) as well as between library systems and other
institutions such as museums. Libraries, their staff and their patrons
all benefit from creative sharing of library resources and services.”

Other
fields of endeavor have created national networks. For example, the
National Agricultural and Rural Development Policy (NARDeP) Center is a
“flexible national network of scientists and analysts ready to quickly
meet the needs of local, state, and federal policy makers.”

Certainly, all libraries – networked together – can do the same thing for the residents of their communities.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/139429516062/a-national-library-service]

The New Urban Exodus

During the last half of the last century, there was much concern
about people leaving cities. Several books explored the phenomenon,
including one titled “Urban Exodus”, a phrase that became almost a rallying cry for urbanists and urban planners.

Many of the cities – even the largest ones – lost population as people moved out to the suburbs and even further to ex-urbs.

Then
over the last decade or two, with a general decrease in crime and
the arrival of both immigrants and young people who grew up elsewhere,
many cities – although certainly not all – were re-populated and turned
around. We read many stories about how these new arrivals are bringing a
new vibrancy to urban areas. And we frequently hear about the various
predictions of the continuing urbanization of the world’s population.

Of course, rural life continues to have its attractive qualities for some people. So, about two years ago, I asked “Will The Best & Brightest Return To The Countryside?
That blog post even had a reference to a New York Times story about
older folks returning to rural life after business careers elsewhere – “A Second Career, Happily in the Weeds”.

A necessary youth movement among farmers has also developed. In western Canada, there is the Young Agrarians
whose motto is “growing the next generation of farmers and food lovers
in Canada”. On the other side of the continent, the Virtual Grange has
run young farmers conferences.

Even more recently, with the
diffusion of information and communications technology, there has
started a new urban exodus, with a more significant twist. This exodus
is not about the movement to the suburbs of middle class families, whose
breadwinners work for large corporations. Rather it is about creative
folks, artists, and others from cities, going past the suburbs, to live
in rural areas where they can practice their craft and/or become
farmers.

The magazine, Modern Farmer, was established to serve
this group of people – in its own special hipster way that would
otherwise be associated with parts of San Francisco or Brooklyn. In a
recent issue, the magazine contained an article “At Home with Jacob and Alissa Hessler of Urban Exodus”.

image

The appropriately named Urban Exodus website describes its founders and cohorts this way:

“The
new age of back to landers. Urban Exodus gives an intimate glimpse into
the spaces and lives of creative urbanites who chose to leave the
concrete jungle for greener pastures. In addition to the idyllic imagery
of rustic farmhouses, working studios and cabins nestled in the woods,
are interviews detailing their journey. These interviews highlight the
triumphs and the struggles they have experienced and the inspirations
they have found since choosing to live a life away from the urban
existences they once knew.“

It’s filled with stories about people like those pictured here:

image

Nor is this just a North American phenomenon. William van den Broek wrote about the same situation in France:

“Many
cities of the world are facing an unexpected phenomenon: urban exodus.
No longer constrained by a localized workspace, an increasing number of
freelancers are enjoying mobility, and ultimately leaving stressful and
polluted cities. After the rural exodus, following the industrial
revolution, are we now facing a digital urban exodus. Perhaps this
movement is now following the digital revolution?”

Any social
trend is complex, especially in the world today. So, for some people,
it’s not a matter of taking leave from the city, but living in both the
city and the country – a combination that technology also makes
possible.  I mentioned Brooklyn before as one of the centers of the
young creatives on the East Coast. Among those splitting their time in
city and country are young Brooklyn families who maintain residences
both in Brooklyn’s urban core and more than a hundred miles away in the
rural parts of the Hudson Valley and Catskills Mountains.

Unfortunately,
rural areas on the wrong side of the digital divide will not be very
inviting to this potential influx of sophisticated folks because those
areas lack the required connectivity to the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, with the creative and idealistic people behind it, this
new urban exodus is very much worth watching.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/139052799904/the-new-urban-exodus]

Getting Us Closer?

When we look at the adoption of new technologies, there often seem to
be two simultaneous divergent trends. The innovators and early adopters
push the technology forward, making significant progress every year.
The laggards still find many reasons not to use the technology.

The current state of videoconferencing provides a very strong example of this divergence.

While
videoconferencing has been steadily increasing in the corporate world,
it hasn’t really taken off. Each year, we see new predictions that this
next year videoconferencing will be unavoidable.

The obstacles to widespread adoption of videoconferencing in the past included:

  • Cost – which has decreased dramatically over the last few years
  • Quality
    — the need for high broadband, low latency on both sides of the
    conversation, which gets better as bandwidth has generally increased
  • Sunk
    costs that make people wary of investing more money — one estimate is
    that more than half of businesses have outdated hardware
  • And, as always, human resistance or impediments to change of any kind.

In
recent years, consumers have tended to adopt new technologies faster
than big corporations do. But reliable data about usage of consumer
video, like Skype Video or Apple FaceTime, is not readily available.

Nevertheless, the technology is moving forward with some interesting results.

Two weeks ago, Skype celebrated ten years of video calls by offering group mobile video conferencing.

Using through-the-screen-camera and a holographic illusion, DVETelepresence
has worked to make videoconferences appear more natural to
participants. This picture is one of my favorites. You’ll notice that to
enhance the illusion they even embed the office plant on both sides of
the screen, as if it really is to the side of the people who are remote.

image

Last week, 4Dpresence, a spinoff of DVETelepresence, announced
the availability of their “holographic town hall” for political
candidates and issues. Taking a page from India’s Prime Minister, who
used videoconferences to appear all over that country during their last
election, this company is offering to host candidates who can appear as
if they are live holograms and interact with audiences. The company
claims:

“In live venues, the patented holographic augmented
reality podium is so bright the candidates appear more compelling than
actually being there in person. The candidates and citizens engage each
other naturally as if they are together in person.”

You can see a video on their website.

Personify
offers what they call “Video Conversation, With a Hint of
Teleportation”. The idea is to eliminate the background that an Intel
RealSense 3D camera or a Primesense Carmine 3D cameravideo camera is
picking up so that you and the people you’re talking to all seem to
share the same virtual space.

Another version of teleportation for videoconferencing was featured a few months ago in a Wall St. Journal article titled “The Future of Remote Work Feels Like Teleportation: Virtual-reality headsets, 3-D cameras help make videoconferencing immersive”. As its author wrote:

“I
have experienced the future of remote work, and it feels a lot like
teleportation. Whether I was in a conference room studded with monitors,
on a video-chat system that leverages 3-D cameras, or strapped into a
virtual-reality headset inhabiting the body of a robot, I kept having
the same feeling over and over again: I was there — where collaboration
needed to happen.”  

The article focused especially on the use of virtual reality gear to achieve this effect. There is DORA from the University of Pennsylvania, in which a person uses the VR headset to see through the eyes of a mobile robot.

This month’s MIT Technology Review also highlighted the use of Microsoft’s Room Alive in an article
titled “Can Augmented Reality Make Remote Communication Feel More
Intimate? A Microsoft Research study uses augmented reality to project a
life-size person into a room with you, perching them in an empty seat.”

image

Eventually, as the technology gets ever more interesting and
intimate, some fraction of the laggards may finally adopt the new
technology. Although as Max Planck noted about scientific progress, the
adoption pattern may just be generational: “A new scientific truth does
not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light,
but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation
grows up that is familiar with it.”

So it’s interesting that “47% of US teens use video chat including Skype, Oovoo, Facetime and Omegle.”

In
the meantime, the early adopters are getting all the economic and
intellectual benefits that can only occur with the full communication
that videoconferencing provides and texting/emails don’t. These people
are literally seeing the real potential of global Internet
communications and will likely reap the economic gains from realizing
that potential.

image

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/138040698302/getting-us-closer]

Was It The Year Of The Wearables?

At the very beginning of this year, I posted about the popular theme then that 2015 would be the year of wearable technology. Has it been?

Last week, Fortune magazine reported:

“While the Apple Watch has carved out a sizable chunk of the wearable market share this year, the number-one manufacturer of these devices, Fitbit, remains the same. According to IDC’s latest numbers, in the third quarter, overall wearable device shipments were as high as 21 million units worldwide — a growth of 197.6% year-over-year. And this year’s launch of the Apple Watch has contributed to the increase, with IDC reporting 3.9 million units of the iPhone-connected device shipping in the third quarter.”

So the sales of Fitbit and the Apple Watch are good. I even received a Fitbit as a present and wear it — although not all the time. (I’m also not sure that carrying my iPhone on my belt counts as a wearable 🙂

It’s fair to say that we’re still not at the point where most people are wearing these devices. The numbers are bound to increase, though, as the products improve and new ones, like the Oculus Rift, become available.

Nevertheless, it was a year of great creativity by inventors and designers of new, sometimes even fun, wearables. Many have only been made public in the last month or so. Let’s take a look.

Glasses — Augmented Reality Devices

While Google withdrew its Glass product, some interesting applications arose anyway. Last month, the Canadian Journal of Cardiology posted online a proof-of-concept study, in which the physicians found:

“The projection of 3-dimensional computed tomographic reconstructions onto the screen of virtual reality glass allowed the operators to clearly visualize the distal coronary vessel.”

Also, a few weeks ago, Volkswagen announced that, after a pilot test phase, they would equip the workers in their Wolfsburg plant with “3-D smart glasses”. One of the plant executives noted “The 3D smart glasses take cooperation between humans and systems to a new level.”

Of course, one of the issues that Google ran into is that these glasses look geeky. To address that problem, a spinoff of VTT in Finland has developed and will release an alternative little screen that fits onto regular eyeglasses and provides a virtual display equivalent to 60 inches.

image

The Wall St. Journal reported last month that NEC “has created a user interface which can display an augmented-reality keyboard on a person’s forearm, using eyeglasses and a smart watch”, thus extending both technologies. (You can see a video here.)

image

Smart Clothing

Perhaps the most interesting, but least reported, products are essentially smart clothing — truly wearable technology 😉

The engineers at Thalmic Labs continue to develop the Myo with their armband that understands your gestures to control the actions of a computer. It had its general release this year and the company is encouraging an app market for it.

They were not alone. Among others, Apotact Labs completed a successful Kickstarter campaign at the end of last month for its Gest product. They promise it will track gestures much more accurately by monitoring your fingers and hands, as shown here.

Taking gesture tracking into a somewhat different direction, researchers at the University of Auckland wrote a paper about their

“soft, flexible and stretchable keyboard made from a dielectric elastomer sensor sheet … [that] can detect touch in two dimensions, programmable to increase the number of keys and into different layouts, all without adding any new wires, connections or modifying the hardware.”

image

In May at their annual I/O conference, Google release a video and information about its Project Jacquard, “a new system for weaving technology into fabric, transforming everyday objects, like clothes, into interactive surfaces.” They apparently have a partnership with Levi Strauss to use this fabric, so maybe someday you won’t ever have to take your smartphone out of the back pocket of your jeans.

Then in June, the Engineering School of the University of Tokyo announced that it had

“developed a new ink that can be printed on textiles in a single step to form highly conductive and stretchable connections. This new functional ink will enable electronic apparel such as sportswear and underwear incorporating sensing devices for measuring a range of biological indicators such as heart rate and muscle contraction.”

image

You can see their video about it here.

Sensoria, best known for helping runners with its smart sock, teamed up with Orthotics Holdings to announce a new product for 2016 — the Internet-connected Smart Moore Balance Brace that is intended to help seniors avoid falling. That’s a significant issue for about a third of seniors every year, which often happens outside the sight of physicians who can only guess what might have happened. With the Internet connection, this device can report various key aspects of a senior’s walking.

The Next Generation May Already Be Starting

While the wearables market has not yet peaked, Reuters already had an article that predicted, as its headline said: “As Sensors Shrink, Watch As ‘Wearables’ Disappear”.

It opened up this way:

“Forget ‘wearables’… The next big thing in mobile devices: ‘disappearables’.

“Even as the new Apple Watch piques consumer interest in wrist-worn devices, the pace of innovation and the tumbling cost, and size, of components will make wearables smaller — so small, some in the industry say, that no one will see them.

“Within five years, wearables like the Watch could be overtaken by hearables — devices with tiny chips and sensors that can fit inside your ear. They, in turn, could be superseded by disappearables — technology tucked inside your clothing, or even inside your body.”

I’ll follow up on that last point in a future post, but I’m taking off for the holidays, so this is my last post for the year. I wish all my readers a very happy holiday season and a great new year!

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/135319250466/was-it-the-year-of-the-wearables]

Reality Becomes More Blended

I’ve blogged before about the blending of the digital and physical to create new kinds of hybrid spaces – here, here, here, here and here.   This blending opens up all kinds of possibilities for new experiences in cities, in entertainment, education, and elsewhere.

(We, at the Gotham Innovation Greenhouse, hope to move this forward as well in a few months – but that’s another story.)

Of course, blended reality is not yet part of the everyday lives of most people.

That
hasn’t stopped creative technologists. There have been several
developments this year which illustrate new kinds of blended reality.  

Here are some that caught my attention.

HoloLens

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced its HoloLens
and “Windows Holographic Platform”. The HoloLens is their version of
virtual reality that lets you see three-dimensional holographic images
in the space around you. 

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While the obvious gaming uses have already been reported
on, there are other uses, for example, enabling a person to envision
what a building interior would look like from the viewpoint of someone
walking inside. The latter was shown at the Architecture and Design Film Festival.

Of course, since this is a Microsoft product, there have been both enthusiastic and not-so-enthusiastic reviews, sometimes in the same magazine, as you can see if you follow the links.

MagicLeap

Microsoft
also doesn’t always provide leading edge technologies, so there has
been much interest – but not too much information – about a
Florida-based company called Magic Leap which is going beyond the
HoloLens. The company proclaims its aim to mix the physical and virtual
worlds.

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It has received investments from major competitors of Microsoft,
but until two weeks ago didn’t show much. Then it released a video
showing a person interacting with virtual objects, robots and the solar
system. The company has assured everyone that the video was recorded
just as it happened, without special effects.

Magic Leap’s CEO, Rony Abovitz, was reported
to say

“We are sensing the world — the floor, the people. We’re doing
real-time understanding of the world, so that all these objects can know
where they sit.”

While Microsoft and Magic Leap seem to be mainly
focused on blending reality indoors, others are demonstrating ways that
the virtual and physical can work together outdoors or both indoors and
outdoors.

Samsung

In June, Samsung showed
the latest generation of see-through 55 inch OLED display that seems to
be able to really handle high transparency and strong light going
through it. To add to the feeling, the company has combined it with
Intel’s technology to see and understand what a person is doing with
what’s on the screen.

image

Trilite

While Microsoft and Oculus, among
others, are busy creating devices you can wear over your eyes, in a
sense the real challenge is to create 3D illusions without the need for
glasses. The Technical University of Vienna and Trilite announced their prototype earlier this year.

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As they describe it:

“A sophisticated laser system sends laser
beams into different directions. Therefore, different pictures are
visible from different angles. The angular resolution is so fine that
the left eye is presented a different picture than the right one,
creating a 3D effect… 3D movies in the cinema only show two different
pictures – one for each eye. The newly developed display, however, can
present hundreds of pictures. Walking by the display, one can get a view
of the displayed object from different sides, just like passing a real
object.”

2wenty Lightworks

More ephemeral, but more dramatic, is the work of the Los Angeles light and media artist, 2wenty, who has created dancing lightworks, such as this:

image

Pixelstick

And for those us who want to paint with light, there is Pixelstick,
which contains 200 full color LEDs controlled by a programmed SD card.
Although it started as a Kickstarter campaign two years ago, it has
graduated from that status.

image

There’s more background in a video at https://youtu.be/TjXvqfWfRi4

This
blending of the physical and the virtual, of art and technology, is at
the very least a lot of fun. More later on its broader significance.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/132476393322/reality-becomes-more-blended]

8 Trends Create 8 Opportunities For 21st Century Libraries

The fifth annual worldwide virtual conference about the future of libraries in the digital age, Library 2.0, is being held today.  I just completed my keynote presentation.

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Too often, discussions about libraries focus on how technological and economic trends are assaulting them.

The
warnings have been around for some time. Twenty years ago at the
General Conference of the International Federation of Library
Associations, Chris Batt, then Director of the Croydon UK Library, gave a
speech on the “The library of the future”.  He said:

“What are
the implications of all for this for the future of public libraries? …
The answer is that while we cannot be certain about the future for our
services, we can and should be developing a vision which encompasses and
enriches the potential of the Internet. If we do not do that then
others will; and they will do it less well.”

So I followed the advice attributed to President Lincoln,

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

And
I chose instead to focus on the positive and the pro-active in my
keynote to the conference. I aimed to encourage the audience to push the
envelope, going beyond the constraints in their thinking about the role
of the library.

Its title tells the story: “How The Future
Requires Us To Re-envision Libraries: Trends In Technology, Society, The
Economy And Government Provide New Opportunities For Libraries”.

The
theme was that librarians should not just wait and see how to respond
to this century’s trends, but instead seize the opportunities these
trends open up and provide leadership to define the future of libraries
and society in our knowledge-based economy.

Here then are the eight trends I discussed and how each opens up another opportunity for library leadership in this century:

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If you’d like to see the presentation, it’s at https://sas.elluminate.com/site/external/recording/playback/link/table/dropin?sid=2008350&suid=D.CC1B958CD5B8C600676595BA71FF55

image

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved
[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/131572189014/8-trends-create-8-opportunities-for-21st-century]

The Digital Imperative Of Rural Libraries

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The maker movement is one of the hottest trends in the public library world. Maker spaces in libraries have the latest in 3D printing technology, digital media tools and other tools for the creative person who wants to make things. These are full-fledged STEAM (science, tech, engineering, arts and math) labs.

As you might expect, there are maker spaces somewhere in most major urban and suburban libraries.

But what is perhaps surprising and intriguing is the growth of maker spaces in small towns and rural areas — and why maker spaces are especially needed in those places and why those areas are fertile ground for maker spaces.

The countryside is known for the mechanical skills of many of its residents. Perhaps these skills were developed in response to distance from major service hubs and the necessity to keep farm and household equipment going.

For at least the last ten years, much traditional mechanical equipment has become computerized. And engines have become more reliable. So mechanical skills just aren’t as useful anymore.

Or maybe they are. That is what I think has caught the attention of rural librarians. Leah Hamilton, the manager of the Phelps Library in a small upstate New York town that had one of the first makerspaces in the USA, puts it this way:

“The library is a place for idea-sharing, … Our region has a wealth of manufacturing industries, and these businesses require well-trained, highly qualified employees. … We can provide the tools for inspiration of invention and the betterment of people’s livelihoods.”

Considering their limited budgets, it’s amazing how many of these libraries in rural areas have built makerspaces.

These are in small towns in Wisconsin, with populations well under 10,000 residents, like Sauk City’s 3D printer or Lomira’s MediaLab. They’re in the old, but small (population 12,000), city of Beaufort, South Carolina.

image

A couple of years ago, the Idaho Commission for Libraries began its “Make It At The Library” project, a network of makerspaces in small libraries across the state.

There are small and rural libraries with makerspaces arising in places as widespread as Maine, Montana, New Mexico, small town New Jersey, Canada and as far as the United Kingdom and New Zealand!

As interesting as the adoption of makerspaces is, it is part of a larger picture about the technology and leadership role of libraries in small towns and rural areas.

A few months ago, Professor Brian Whitacre of Oklahoma State University and Professor Colin Rhinesmith of the University of Oklahoma published interested research that dealt with another part of this larger picture:

“Rural libraries have long been a crucial part of the small-town way of life … Now we’ve found through a new study that rural libraries may also provide another important benefit: They may increase local rates of household broadband adoption.

Our study found that, even after controlling for other things that likely influence broadband adoption (such as levels of income, education, and age), an additional library in a rural county was associated with higher residential broadband adoption rates … libraries were the only type of ‘community anchor institution’ to show any kind of relationship.”

Whether it is makerspaces or enabling necessary connections to the global Internet, these rural libraries are playing the role that all libraries should — fulfilling their potential as the central institution in a digital world and a knowledge economy.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/131154892399/the-digital-imperative-of-rural-libraries]

Robots Like Humans  —  Or Not?

There has been great interest in robots that seem to act like human, not just in the movies, but also in technology news. So much so, that the big debate in the robot world would seem to be how much we should program our robots to be like us.

Previously, I’ve blogged about machines that create art, poetry and even news reports. While those are all intellectual exercises that people might think “smart” machines could do, there are also robots from Japan, of course, that can dance — maybe break dance — as you can see in this video from earlier this year.

(It’s worth noting that much of this leading edge robotics of this
kind is coming from Japan, perhaps in the face of a declining and aging
human population.)

Murata
has made dancing robotic cheerleaders, albeit to show how to control
and coordinate robots and not necessarily to set the dancing world on
fire. They too have a video to demonstrate the point.

image

Some Canadians sent a robot, called Hitchbot, hitchhiking, like a
college student seeing the world for the first time. More than a year
ago, I blogged
about its trip across Canada. Then two months ago, there were several
reports about how sad it was that HitchBot was beheaded by the criminal
elements who supposedly control the streets of Philadelphia at night.
The New York Times’s poignant headline was “Hitchhiking Robot, Safe in Several Countries, Meets Its End in Philadelphia”.  

Later substantial evidence was brought to light that media personalities were responsible. See “Was hitchBOT’s destruction part of a publicity stunt?

In any event, to make up for the loss of HitchBot, other Philadelphians built Philly Love Bots. Radio station WMMR promoted
their own version called Pope-Bot, in anticipation of the trip by Pope
Francis. It has survived the real Pope’s trip to Philly and has even
traveled around that area without incident.

image

Consider also sports, which has featured humans in contests with each
other for thousands of years – albeit aided, more recently, by very
advanced equipment and drugs.

Apparently, some folks now envision
sports contests fought by robots doing things humans do, but only
better. Cody Brown, the designer known for creating the visual
storytelling tool Scroll kit, sees a different kind of story. In TIME
Magazine, he suggested seven reasons “Why Robotic Sports Will One Day Rival The NFL”.

We also want robots to provide a human touch. Thinking of the needs of the elderly, RIKEN
has developed “a new experimental nursing care robot, ROBEAR, which is
capable of performing tasks such as lifting a patient from a bed into a
wheelchair or providing assistance to a patient who is able to stand up
but requires help to do so.”

image

The research staff at the Google Brain project have been developing a
chatbot that can have normal conversations with people, even on
subjects that don’t lend themselves to factual answers to basic
questions that are the staple of such robotic services – subjects like
the meaning of life. The chatbot learned a more human style by ingesting and analyzing an enormous number of conversations between real people.

Of
course, the desire to make robots and their ilk too much like humans
can backfire. Witness the negative reaction to Mattel’s Talking Barbie.

Indeed,
there are benefits if we don’t try to make robots in our human image –
although doing so might make us feel less like gods 🙂

At
Carnegie-Mellon, researchers decided that maybe it didn’t make sense to
put “eyes” on a robot’s head, the way human bodies do. As they announced a few days ago, instead, they put the eyes into the robot’s hands and that made the fingers much more effective.

We
ought to consider that, with ever growing intelligence, eventually
robots will figure it all out themselves. Researchers at Cambridge
University and the University of Zurich have laid the groundwork by
developing a robotic system
that evolves and improves its performance. The robotic system then
changes its own software so that the next generation is better.

As the lead researcher, Dr. Fumiya Iida, said:

“One
of the big questions in biology is how intelligence came about – we’re
using robotics to explore this mystery … we want to see robots that are
capable of innovation and creativity.”

And where that
leads will be unpredictable, except that it isn’t likely the robots will
improve themselves by copying everything we humans do.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/130549037815/robots-like-humans-or-not]

The Internet Of Things Spreads And Raises Concerns

Although it’s not growing as fast as some people thought a year ago, the Internet of Things continues to be deployed.

While
we often think of the sensors and other aspects of the Internet of
Things being part of the management of large cities or industrial
enterprises, some of the most interesting developments have occurred,
but gone largely unnoticed, on the farm.

A few weeks ago, two articles about this appeared – “The Dawn Of The Smart Farmer: Sowing Sensors And Connecting Crops” and a blog by Steve Lohr (one of the NY Times very best technology reporters) “The Internet of Things and the Future of Farming”.

The
things that are being connected have, so far, been digital devices. But
the Korean company Naran is introducing a micro-robot, called the Push.
Any non-digital switch, like a light switch, can be controlled by this
nearby device, which in turn is connected to a small Prota computer that
tells the little robot when to turn the switch on or off based on a set
of rules set up by the user. There’s also a smartphone app for
preparing these rules or simply controlling the robot directly. 

image

Perhaps the greatest potential
of the Internet of Things is as a step to other ways of extending the
Internet. The University of Virginia announced a new way to use regular LED lights:

“It’s
like using fiber optics to communicate – only without the fiber.
Imagine connecting to the Internet through the same room lights that
brighten your day. A University of Virginia engineering professor and
her former graduate student are already there… Their breakthrough means
that data can be transmitted faster with light waves using no more
energy than is already required to run the lights.”

Of course,
problems, like security, are always an issue, even in surprising
quarters. Vint Cerf, the unofficial father of the Internet and Chief
Internet Evangelist at Google, worries that the software behind the
Internet of Things has bugs. Last week, he publicly confessed that “Sometimes I’m terrified by it”.

Andy Greenberg of WIRED magazine has been particularly active reporting on these issues. In July, he wrote how “Hackers Can Disable a Sniper Rifle—Or Change Its Target”.

image

In July, starting with another article in WIRED,
the hacking of cars built by major American car manufacturers made big
news. That led to a recall that was a nuisance, a necessary nuisance,
for car owners.

On a more positive note earlier this month, another reporter at WIRED followed up with an article titled “Researchers Hacked a Model S, But Tesla’s Already Released a Patch
noting that the same Internet of Things which opened up a vulnerability
could also be used by smart companies to close those doors quickly.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/128029124326/the-internet-of-things-spreads-and-raises-concerns]

Not Your Typical Urban News — Part 2

As part of my summer roundup, this is the second review of unconventional news items about what’s happening in cities, states/provinces and other sub-national governments.  Last week, I wrote about urban migrations and urban work/life balance.  This week, some stories about urban technology and compassion.

Urban Technology

Many cities claim to be technology leaders, but this story in the Guardian really does stand out: “Welcome to Jun, the town that ditched bureaucracy to run on Twitter – Residents of the Spanish town use Twitter for everything from reporting crimes to booking doctor’s appointments. Is this the future of local government?”  The obelisk in the central square is decorated with a Twitter mosaic.  

The Mayor is quoted as saying:

“Twitter has created the society of the minute – very quick questions and very quick answers. We now do our paperwork on Twitter,” … “But this is an important point, because who values the work of the people at city hall? The street sweeper? The cleaner? We decided that everyone would have a Twitter account so that they could see that people value their work.”

On the negative side of technology, among all the various scare stories about cyber-attacks, here’s a counter-intuitive argument, “How to hack a city—and why we should”.  Its author, Jonathan Keane, notes:

Cities, like any complex system, are potentially susceptible to hacking. The important question is just how susceptible?

“Through smart technologies, wireless connectivity, and the burgeoning Internet of Things, cities and critical infrastructure have been getting a technological makeover in recent years. Amsterdam is exploring several open-source projects and cities like Barcelona, Spain are revamping energy grids and traffic lights. But those new initiatives open up new vulnerabilities.”

Following up on my previous blog post about where people spend their mental time, this research paper in the online scientific journal, the Public Library of Science (PLOS), was of interest — “Do Global Cities Enable Global Views? Using Twitter to Quantify the Level of Geographical Awareness of U.S. Cities”.  

The researchers concluded:

“Our findings are that: (1) the level of geographical awareness varies depending on when and where Twitter messages are posted, yet Twitter users from big cities are more aware of the names of international cities or distant US cities than users from mid-size cities; (2) Twitter users have an increased awareness of other city names far away from their home city during holiday seasons; and (3) Twitter users are more aware of nearby city names than distant city names, and more aware of big city names rather than small city names.”

Perhaps their findings weren’t too surprising, although it’s fascinating to see how Twitter data is being used.

Anyway, here’s their ranking of various cities on a global awareness index (GAI):

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Compassion?

Finally, perhaps as a counterpoint (or a complement?) to the talk about technology in cities, Louisville, Kentucky is beginning to get noticed for its “Compassionate Cities Mission Statement”.  The City boldly states that:

“Compassion is common ground and a unifying force in our polarized world. Compassion impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect. Compassion is the bridge between internal practice and external change.”

They go on to identify these dimensions of compassion – “Beauty, Inclusion, Empowerment, Transparency, Universally Positive, Social Innovation, Paying it forward, Hospitality, Abundance, Awareness/Understanding, and Intention.”

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All in all, some very interesting developments on the urban front.

© 2015 Norman Jacknis

[http://njacknis.tumblr.com/post/126911730407/not-your-typical-urban-news-part-2]