Open Data and Civic Tech Needs YOU!

unclesam  Indianapolis is proud to have hosted its second annual civic hackathon last month, but let’s take a wider look for just a minute. Indy’s Civic Hackathon was one of 106 cities that participated in the National Civic Day of Hacking. Even several years ago, there was a “buzz” around civic innovation. A major catalyst was Code for America (CfA) that started in 2009. Since then, the movement has been steadily building spawning dozens of CfA local volunteer groups or Brigades. However, civic innovation is still a new enough concept that most people may not have heard of it before or really understand it. Here is some background.

Many traditional challenges of government are well known. The idea that government is slow, burdened with bureaucracy and not very cost effective (e.g., cost overruns of government contracts) resonate with most people. The idea of creating innovative solutions to get around these traditional problems, however, is not very well known in most circles. Most of the focus has been on open-source apps and open data because the last several years have seen a proliferation of tools to make app creation much quicker and easier. However, we must keep in mind that civic innovation isn’t just some programmers and data geeks locked away alone to create a new app.

In a great example of low-tech civic innovation, high-school students in Austin, Indiana (at the center of the recent HIV outbreak) started an HIV education program for younger students. The students have partnered with local clergy to complement the work that the CDC and Indiana State Department of Health (ISDH) are doing. The students saw the need for more accurate information and banded together to create a program that is typically the domain of ISDH. What makes this powerful is that regular people spontaneously came together to improve their own community. This is one of main principles of Open Indy Brigade: Bringing the larger community together to improve our community.

While programmers and other techies are definitely needed to create new apps, many others are also needed to enable real improvement. Open Indy Brigade also needs people who know public policy, government processes, design, project management, community organization and many other pieces that will be all brought together to solve real problems rather than to just create technology for technology’s sake.

Ali Llewellyn said it far more eloquently than I can
“The world doesn’t really need more hackathons – heaven knows we have enough of those. It doesn’t need people’s weekends to be filled up doing other people’s work or building things that won’t go anywhere. What it does need is an empowered citizenry who takes a stake in contributing to and participating in their democracy – and doing that together. It needs communities who come together and take responsibility to answer the questions that aren’t getting answered and address the challenges that don’t have easy solutions.”

Now, hackathons do have their place and a creative, well-designed app can be a game-changer for our community. However, the MOST important piece is that many different people come together for a common goal. Open Indy Brigade sincerely hopes that YOU will come out and be a part of that community that participates in our democracy and solves challenges together. We start on July 9!

Posted in open data

Open Indy: Techies…Help your community and help yourself!

oib logo So who wouldn’t want to help their own career while improving the community?  Sounds like a win-win, right?  Yes, it is!  That’s what Open Indy is!  The newest “brigade” from Code for America is now forming in central Indiana.  While we’ve been meeting in stealth mode for a little while, the first official gathering will be at the Indy Civic Hackathon on 6/6/2015 at the Eleven Fifty Coding Academy.

The hackathon is going to be a fun event.  In addition to being held at one of the coolest tech venues in the area, there are big-name sponsors and interesting challenges to work from IPS (2 different challenges), the city of Indianapolis and the State of Indiana – specifically the Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA).  In addition to getting your brain working on something other than whatever you do Monday-Friday, it puts you in-touch with some seriously great minds!  This is the real value of a hackathon.  While you have to work with the people at your company, a hackathon enables you to work with people who you may not otherwise contact…and in this environment, it’s all about sharing what you and others know.  So you’re bound to learn a ton of new and interesting things that would be difficult in your day job.  This will then help you in your day job and/or open your mind to other opportunities that you may not get with your company.

Don’t get me wrong, I think everyone should do what they can to help your company.  They pay you good money to do good things.  However, is your work your life? No.  Also, you need to expand your mind and continue to learn and – lets face it – you may not be able to do that in your current position. For example, if you’re dealing with the production support issue of the day, you can’t possibly think of the latest technologies.

So a hackathon gives you the opportunity to learn and do something new…and more importantly, to connect with the larger community that may be able to open doors for you to grow.

While I was recently in Puerto Rico, I was struck by the lack of techie culture that I have seen in other areas.  In an informal survey of “techy social-ness”, I compared the technology “meet-ups” in Puerto Rico compared to central Indiana.  I was horrified to find that Puerto Rico had only a fraction of meet-ups as central Indiana even though they have more than 3 times the people!  This helps partially explain why Puerto Rico doesn’t have a strong tech community.  By meeting and working with others outside of your traditional job, you strengthen both your job prospects as well as strengthen your community as a whole.  So check out Open Indy and help yourself AND your community!

Posted in business intelligence, Career, programming

Even With Travel Tech, It’s The Data That Matters!

xmarksthespot“We do not follow maps to buried treasure and X never, ever marks the spot.”  Movie trivia for today: What movie is this from?

Answer: Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade…of course!

On our recent trip to Puerto Rico, it often felt like we were following a treasure map and looking for the X to mark the spot.  It wasn’t just because the island is the stuff of old pirate stories.  No, the very real and current issue was that we were having challenges with GPS and our map apps. At first, I thought it was just simple user error.  However, after entering some very well-known or basic requests and getting odd results, I really started to wonder.  So when I asked a local man and he said, “GPS doesn’t work in Puerto Rico”, I really started to get intrigued (I also got a headache but the techy side of my brain was intrigued).  The rest of the trip, we joked that “Puerto Rican GPS” is this: “…go ALLLLL the way down to the Burger King and turn right…then go ALLL the way down…” – you get the picture.

So what is the issue?  We were able to find our way around by entering just the names of the towns and then asked for more detailed “landmark” instructions.  When we returned, I started to do a little research and realized that I wasn’t the only one having troubles.  To be fair, GPS DOES work in Puerto Rico, it’s just that you have to be careful in how you enter….wait for it…the data! I realized just how important data standardization is when dealing with this GPS issue.  The challenge is that sometimes the “official” address differs somewhat from the “commonly known” address….OR…there are additional concepts added that aren’t widely know.  The concept of the “urbanization” as part of the address helped us find some locations.  Layer that with some information being in Spanish and others in English, I started to realize how difficult it would be for a GPS-enabled app to successfully find some places.

As this issue is very widely known by people living in Puerto Rico, some are making efforts to get down the most basic of data points for GPS: latitude and longitude.  In this story, KMart (that incidentally has a much bigger presence in PR than they do on the mainland) takes this cue and list their lat/long coordinates.  This worked extremely well for another adventure also: we were on the small island of Vieques and on the hunt for a newly discovered black-sand beach.  Through a few minutes of goole’ing, we found someone who listed the coordinates…the GPS took us right to the seemingly random part of a deserted road that had no signage…but viola, there it was!  Latitude and longitude work every time.  In looking at some of the information on google geocoding, its clear that a good amount of address information can be deciphered fairly easily.  It’s just when the data strays for some accepted standards that the results are problematic.

Another instance of data being important is with restaurant finder apps.  In most place in the ‘states, I find Yelp and Urban Spoon fairly comparable.  However, when going anywhere outside (and we’ve seen this in Europe too), Yelp is “head and shoulders” above Urban Spoon.  Even in PR, we found the data in Yelp (location, hours, etc..) very accurate and we were able to find reviews on every restaurant we went to.  So we could tell if the “lechon” (roast pork) was fatty or not…or the “bacalao” (a type of cod) was good or not.  We also found a local app, to be very useful too (although, you kind of have to be able to read Spanish).  We had a great time and actually didn’t mind (too much) the GPS issues as it gave us some great stories.  We were on vacation after all and were looking for a little adventure…we just never found that “X” marking the spot!

Posted in big data, Travel

Teens: Disruptive Innovators

youtube Yes, it’s happened.  My wife and I can officially get the “Parents of the Year” award! Why, you ask? Our child doesn’t watch any TV…NONE…and it’s voluntary! That’s I thought for just about 1 second.  Then I realized what had replaced TV – YouTube.

Over history, young people have always been “disruptive innovators”…you know, this is the buzzword of the last couple years usually associated with Apple, Google, Uber, etc…  However, it’s always been the next generation that have turned things on their heads and moved culture in a new direction.  This time, our current teens will kill traditional TV as we know it.  I realized this when my son got interested in Jimmy Fallon for only two reasons (aside from the fact that he’s darned funny): 1. He was able to view clips of the show on YouTube; and, 2. they filmed a “react” video with current YouTubers.  That signaled that it was OK to like Jimmy’s show.

If you’re reading this, you must be pretty old.  I mean how many people really READ text anymore…that’s sooooo archaic! Note to self: I need to ditch this blog and create a YouTube channel. Given my assumption that you are old, you may not even know what a YouTuber or what a “react” video is.

So YouTubers (see picture above) are typically teens or twenty-somethings that create a series of videos in an attempt to gain a following; which in turn, can give them a piece of the advertising revenue that YouTube makes.  A “react” video is when someone is filmed watching another video and then reacting to that video.  Now when typed that out, it sounds incredibly inane.  However, I can say for a fact that these can be entertaining.  As a side note, one of the more popular YouTubers are the Fine Brothers who have created a very entertaining series of “Kids React…”,”Teens React…”, “Elders React…” and “YouTubers React…” videos.  One of my favorites is watching “Teens React to 90’s Internet”.  I’ll just say that both the commercial and reactions are priceless!

As I was learning about this new world from my son, it struck me that mainstream media has not picked up on this in a big way.  Yes, there have been some stories about this new media, like this one in the New Yorker.  However, people who are middle-aged or older typically have no idea this world exists because it is very much NOT part of the mainstream media and TV world…on purpose.  While I may not like many of the videos that my son watches now (endless gaming commentary vids – uugghh!), it is refreshing to see that the whole vibe of YouTubers is very different than mainstream media.  This is something that traditional TV just can’t duplicate.

My point about this is that – as a technologist – we can no longer only listen to or watch mainstream media to keep up with current trends.  Some of you know this but most do not (at least in my circles).  Likewise the new, innovative technologies are likely NOT the ones that are sold by traditional methods.  Instead, go to some hackathons or talk to some college students.

Fortunately, YouTubers are starting to get noticed.  In an unusual cross-over event, the most popular YouTuber was written into a South Park episode.  Also, among teens the YouTubers are more popular than several mainstream stars. Lastly, to get on my soapbox for just a moment, this is one of those moments when parents need to stop and open their minds a bit.  While parents may not understand the draw of some YouTubers, it’s an opportunity to learn about and connect a little more with your kid as this one YouTuber writes (and you’ll notice it is in text for all of us “old people”!).

Posted in Uncategorized

Data Analytics: Deja Vu All Over Again

uptownfunk Have you noticed the striking similarities of the Mark Ronson & Bruno Mars song, Uptown Funk, to Morris Day and the Time’s style of funk?  My wife made me realize this recently and not a week later, I heard the exact same comparison being made in this NPR story.  I won’t call it stealing, but rather an homage to times gone by.  When you really stop to think about it, though, many ideas cycle through at regular every few years…so just like Uptown Funk borrows from a great history, data analytics today is a new, better version of the same ideas from the past.

Sometimes I can’t believe the marketing spin people try to put on things.  I recently read an article about a data analytics venture capital fund, Zetta Venture Partners. In the article it actually says that the fund invests in the “emerging field of data analytics”. If that’s true, I’ve been working in an “emerging” field for 20 years!

The whole notion that “Big Data” is new and novel is just silly.  Of course, there are new  technologies that enable companies to work with new types of data, process it much faster and store much more of it.  There are also new tools that make it MUCH more affordable than in the past (just check out Amazon’s price calculator).  However, the idea that data analytics is new is a bit of a stretch.  The “pitch” of all these new companies is that they will help unlock business insights that are hidden in the data.  That was the same value proposition used by Business Intelligence of the ’90’s and 2000’s.

Then I read an article in (no less) that provided – IMHO – very little value in giving advice for executives looking to get into the “burgeoning world of big data”.  I understand the article is well-meaning but I would think that most executives really don’t need to read it.  The simple fact is that it is really advice on outsourcing (or deciding what to outsource). So let me bring back a bit of retro myself.  Think a bit more broadly and embrace an “old” article from 2008.  I believe the advice is just as valid now when considering building or buying new analytics tools and expertise.

I highly recommend investing in new data technologies.  They are much better and more affordable than in the past.  Just don’t think that this is some new industry.

Posted in big data, business intelligence, data warehousing

Let’s Beat the Dead Horse of Healthcare Data Interoperability

220_221 “…C’mon over here Ron and let me show you what I’m doing to take advantage of some of my time off.  I’m going to add a whole new wing here…rip out these walls; …and…ah…of course, re-wire it.  Are you going to make it all 220? …..Yeah, 220…221…whatever it takes…”

Ok, can you name that 1983 classic?  If you’re of my generation, I’m sure you got it right away: Mr Mom

When I think about healthcare data interoperability, my mind does go to this quote.  Why? Its because that electricity standards have been around for many years that the idea that someone might say 221 volts instead of 220 is actually funny.  While some other countries vary a bit (hence the adapters needed in Asia and other places) everyone has made peace with standardization to make everyone’s life easier…and products more affordable.

Unfortunately as I wrote in April and August of last year, healthcare just hasn’t been able to embrace this level of standardization and it is killing health information exchange efforts and – more importantly – new innovations to improve the quality of our healthcare overall.  For example, HL7 “standards” allow for lab results to be contained in discrete values, a text report, an embedded PDF report, or an NLE segment (not to mention any custom built “Z” segments).  For me, that’s not standardization at all…and it creates real costs for organizations trying to work with exchanging data.

So since I already wrote about this twice in the last year, another blog post seems a bit like beating the dead horse.  However, I felt compelled to put this out because ONC published an interesting review of the State Health Information Exchange (HIE) Cooperative Agreement Program (the State HIE Program), in December.  It seems that – at least in my circles – it was totally overshadowed by the Sony hacking story.  So I thought I’d highlight it now that we’ve moved on from Sony.

The report was a case study of 6 states along with their successes and challenges.  To my point in the earlier blog posts, I was validated by quotes like the following:

“Stakeholders in all six states reported IT-related challenges, from EHR and HIE developer limitations to lack of interoperability between systems and data capture and quality issues.

“For interoperability, many look to the ongoing development and adoption of data standards as the long-term solution. In theshort term, grantees are encouraging the use of certain standards among their participants and building capability in data translation and in-house teams responsible for data cleaning.”

“Stakeholders in all six statesreflected on the need for truly interoperable systems, currently absent because of lack of adoption and inconsistent implementation of available standards for vocabulary and exchange, variability in document formats, and issues with interface designs. According to grantees, existing standards (i.e., Systematized Nomenclature of Medicine (SNOMED) and Logical Observation Identifiers Names and Codes (LOINC)) are not as complete as they should be, so developing interfaces is not a ‘plug-and-play’ activity.”

Further, a few others have written about the possible long road to interoperability. The AMA has even pushed for dropping penalties due to interoperability issues.

So to continue to beat the dead horse, my suggestion is that the government and other organizations must commit to putting real focus on real data standardization.  It seems that this idea has taken hold at least in some others’ minds as I saw the following quote from the JASON report earlier in the year.

“In order to allow vendors and providers to focus their efforts on interoperability, CMS and ONC should narrow the scope of MU Stage 3 and associated certification to focus on interoperability in return for higher requirements for interoperability,”

My hope is that 2015 brings new focus to re-working MU requirements to really drive data interoperability.  Otherwise, as someone smarter than me said, “Will the 10-year plan turn into a 50-year plan because we are running it part-time?”

Posted in healthcare IT

Ethics in Technology?

courage For this week’s post, I’ll start with a song quote rather than a movie quote: “…sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same…”.  As I was thinking about the topic of ethics, this song came on my Pandora channel and I thought it was an amazing coincidence.  So what song and artist is this?

The artist (easier) is The Fray…the song: All at Once

As everyone moves through their career, people are faced with ethical choices.  Every once in a while you may be forced into the middle of a big issue; but in my experience its the many more subtle tests of our principles that can have an affect on your career and the world around you.

I’m referring to the classic “go along with the group” question.  When you’re working for a company (or even working for yourself but as part of a team) you’ll often be asked either directly or indirectly to agree with and follow “the group”. Now of course, multiple minds are greater than one and a team is often stronger than the individual.  So building consensus and moving forward as a cohesive group is often the best approach…BUT what happens when you have that nagging voice in the back of your head that says, “…this isn’t right…”?  It is often difficult to find the courage or you rationalize it saying that it will all be OK in the end.  That’s when we need to stop and think a bit.

From personal experience a couple years ago, I went along with the group (company, team) and didn’t stand up strongly enough for what I thought was right. It is easy to get into the mindset of, “that’s not my job” or “my boss will fix it” or “the executives are working on it”.  Don’t buy-in to those rationalizations! If you don’t see results, nothing is happening (what I’ve seen in my experience, anyway). Realize that executives are people too. They have insecurities, issues and problems just like anyone.  More importantly, they COULD be wrong.  Now people didn’t die because of what I did or didn’t do and the world is generally the same; but after the fact, I realized that it could damage my reputation as a professional or lead to other impacts.  So in 2014, my resolution was to – in a positive and professional way – to “call the elephants out in the room” and not let issues fester.  Of course, that’s part of the reason I named this blog as I did.

Now, bringing up some uncomfortable or unpopular topic is never easy.  It takes courage and one other thing: solutions.  The thing that you CAN’T do is simply to complain about a situation – everyone can do that.  If you speak-up, you must have a suggestion for a different path or a fix for the problem.  It doesn’t have to be “THE solution”, but you have to contribute and at least be part of the solution.

When I focused on this in 2014, I was surprised as how many times (probably half a dozen) that I had to calmly suggest that “we could do better, and here’s what I think we can do”.  So if you haven’t already (or you don’t realize it), understand that your principles and ethics WILL be tested.  Take a deep breath, keep calm and realize that no matter the outcome, you’ll have a clear conscience for doing “the right thing”….and you’ll be amazed and how much can change.

From a more broad look at ethics in technology, I think we all would agree that technology is outpacing our legal and ethical frameworks.  Many tech areas were in the news last year from drone use, to police searches of smartphones to DNA-based testing.  Clearly the issues around new technologies will only increase because our type of democratic process is not designed with speed and flexibility in mind (and that’s a massive understatement!).  So that means that individuals, teams and organizations are going to be faced with many questions that can’t be answered with current laws and regulations.  Gerd Leonhard says this much more eloquently than I can in his TED Talk.  The bottom line is that you, me and everyone has to be thinking about the ethics and morals as we innovate the next new thing…and that – sometimes – means disagreeing with your CEO, VP or other potentially intimidating person.

Posted in Career, ethics