Future Health: DNA is one thing, but 90% of you is not you

One of my pet hates is seeing my wife visit the doctor, getting hunches of what may be afflicting her health, and this leading to a succession of “oh, that didn’t work – try this instead” visits for several weeks. I just wonder how much cost could be squeezed out of the process – and lack of secondary conditions occurring – if the root causes were much easier to identify reliably. I then wonder if there is a process to achieve that, especially in the context of new sensors coming to market and their connectivity to databases via mobile phone handsets – or indeed WiFi enabled, low end Bluetooth sensor hubs aka the Apple Watch.

I’ve personally kept a record of what i’ve eaten, down to fat, protein and carb content (plus my Monday 7am weight and daily calorie intake) every day since June 2002. A precursor to the future where devices can keep track of a wide variety of health signals, feeding a trend (in conjunction with “big data” and “machine learning” analyses) toward self service health. My Apple Watch has a years worth of heart rate data. But what signals would be far more compelling to a wider variety of (lack of) health root cause identification if they were available?

There is currently a lot of focus on Genetics, where the Human Genome can betray many characteristics or pre-dispositions to some health conditions that are inherited. My wife Jane got a complete 23andMe statistical assessment several years ago, and has also been tested for the BRCA2 (pronounced ‘bracca-2’) gene – a marker for inherited pre-disposition to risk of Breast Cancer – which she fortunately did not inherit from her afflicted father.

A lot of effort is underway to collect and sequence the complete Genome sequences from the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people, building them into a significant “Open Data” asset for ongoing research. One gotcha is that such data is being collected by numerous organisations around the world, and the size of each individuals DNA (assuming one byte to each nucleotide component – A/T or C/G combinations) runs to 3GB of base pairs. You can’t do research by throwing an SQL query (let alone thousands of machine learning attempts) over that data when samples are stored in many different organisations databases, hence the existence of an API (courtesy of the GA4GH Data Working Group) to permit distributed queries between co-operating research organisations. Notable that there are Amazon Web Services and Google employees participating in this effort.

However, I wonder if we’re missing a big and potentially just as important data asset; that of the profile of bacteria that everyone is dependent on. We are each home to approx. 10 trillion human cells among the 100 trillion microbial cells in and on our own bodies; you are 90% not you.

While our human DNA is 99.9% identical to any person next to us, the profile of our MicroBiome are typically only 10% similar; our age, diet, genetics, physiology and use of antibiotics are also heavy influencing factors. Our DNA is our blueprint; the profile of the bacteria we carry is an ever changing set of weather conditions that either influence our health – or are leading indicators of something being wrong – or both. Far from being inert passengers, these little organisms play essential roles in the most fundamental processes of our lives, including digestion, immune responses and even behaviour.

Different MicroBiome ecosystems are present in different areas of our body, from our skin, mouth, stomach, intestines and genitals; most promise is currently derived from the analysis of stool samples. Further, our gut is only second to our brain in the number of nerve endings present, many of them able to enact activity independently from decisions upstairs. In other areas, there are very active hotlines between the two nerve cities.

Research is emerging that suggests previously unknown links between our microbes and numerous diseases, including obesity, arthritis, autism, depression and a litany of auto-immune conditions. Everyone knows someone who eats like a horse but is skinny thin; the composition of microbes in their gut is a significant factor.

Meanwhile, costs of DNA sequencing and compute power have dropped to a level where analysis of our microbe ecosystems costs from $100M a decade ago to some $100 today. It should continue on that downward path to a level where personal regular sampling could become available to all – if access to the needed sequencing equipment plus compute resources were more accessible and had much shorter total turnaround times. Not least to provide a rich Open Data corpus of samples that we can use for research purposes (and to feed back discoveries to the folks providing samples). So, what’s stopping us?

Data Corpus for Research Projects

To date, significant resources are being expended on Human DNA Genetics and comparatively little on MicroBiome ecosystems; the largest research projects are custom built and have sampling populations of less than 4000 individuals. This results in insufficient population sizes and sample frequency on which to easily and quickly conduct wholesale analyses; this to understand the components of health afflictions, changes to the mix over time and to isolate root causes.

There are open data efforts underway with the American Gut Project (based out of the Knight Lab in the University of San Diego) plus a feeder “British Gut Project” (involving Tim Spector and staff at University College London). The main gotcha is that the service is one-shot and takes several months to turn around. My own sample, submitted in January, may take up 6 months to work through their sequencing then compute batch process.

In parallel, VC funded company uBiome provide the sampling with a 6-8 week turnaround (at least for the gut samples; slower for the other 4 area samples we’ve submitted), though they are currently not sharing the captured data to the best of my knowledge. That said, the analysis gives an indication of the names, types and quantities of bacteria present (with a league table of those over and under represented compared to all samples they’ve received to date), but do not currently communicate any health related findings.

My own uBiome measures suggest my gut ecosystem is more diverse than 83% of folks they’ve sampled to date, which is an analogue for being more healthy than most; those bacteria that are over represented – one up to 67x more than is usual – are of the type that orally administered probiotics attempt to get to your gut. So a life of avoiding antibiotics whenever possible appears to have helped me.

However, the gut ecosystem can flex quite dramatically. As an example, see what happened when one person contracted Salmonella over a three pay period (the green in the top of this picture; x-axis is days); you can see an aggressive killing spree where 30% of the gut bacteria population are displaced, followed by a gradual fight back to normality:

Salmonella affecting MicroBiome PopulationUnder usual circumstances, the US/UK Gut Projects and indeed uBiome take a single measure and report back many weeks later. The only extra feature that may be deduced is the delta between counts of genome start and end sequences, as this will give an indication to the relative species population growth rates from otherwise static data.

I am not aware of anyone offering a faster turnaround service, nor one that can map several successively time gapped samples, let alone one that can convey health afflictions that can be deduced from the mix – or indeed from progressive weather patterns – based on the profile of bacteria populations found.

My questions include:

  1. Is there demand for a fast turnaround, wholesale profile of a bacterial population to assist medical professionals isolating a indicators – or the root cause – of ill health with impressive accuracy?
  2. How useful would a large corpus of bacterial “open data” be to research teams, to support their own analysis hunches and indeed to support enough data to make use of machine learning inferences? Could we routinely take samples donated by patients or hospitals to incorporate into this research corpus? Do we need the extensive questionnaires the the various Gut Projects and uBiome issue completed alongside every sample?
  3. What are the steps in the analysis pipeline that are slowing the end to end process? Does increased sample size (beyond a small stain on a cotton bud) remove the need to enhance/copy the sample, with it’s associated need for nitrogen-based lab environments (many types of bacteria are happy as Larry in the Nitrogen of the gut, but perish with exposure to oxygen).
  4. Is there any work active to make the QIIME (pronounced “Chime”) pattern matching code take advantage of cloud spot instances, inc Hadoop or Spark, to speed the turnaround time from Sequencing reads to the resulting species type:volume value pairs?
  5. What’s the most effective delivery mechanism for providing “Open Data” exposure to researchers, while retaining the privacy (protection from financial or reputational prejudice) for those providing samples?
  6. How do we feed research discoveries back (in English) to the folks who’ve provided samples and their associated medical professionals?

New Generation Sequencing works by splitting DNA/RNA strands into relatively short read lengths, which then need to be reassembled against known patterns. Taking a poop sample with contains thousands of different bacteria is akin to throwing the pieces of many thousand puzzles into one pile and then having to reconstruct them back – and count the number of each. As an illustration, a single HiSeq run may generate up to 6 x 10^9 sequences; these then need reassembling and the count of 16S rDNA type:quantity value pairs deduced. I’ve seen estimates of six thousand CPU hours to do the associated analysis to end up with statistically valid type and count pairs. This is a possible use case for otherwise unused spot instance capacity at large cloud vendors if the data volumes could be ingested and processed cost effectively.

Nanopore sequencing is another route, which has much longer read lengths but is much more error prone (1% for NGS, typically up to 30% for portable Nanopore devices), which probably limits their utility for analysing bacteria samples in our use case. Much more useful if you’re testing for particular types of RNA or DNA, rather than the wholesale profiling exercise we need. Hence for the time being, we’re reliant on trying to make an industrial scale, lab based batch process turn around data as fast we are able – but having a network accessible data corpus and research findings feedback process in place if and when sampling technology gets to be low cost and distributed to the point of use.

The elephant in the room is in working out how to fund the build of the service, to map it’s likely cost profile as technology/process improvements feed through, and to know to what extent it’s diagnosis of health root causes will improve it’s commercial attractiveness as a paid service over time. That is what i’m trying to assess while on the bench between work contracts.

Other approaches

Nature has it’s way of providing short cuts. Dogs have been trained to be amazingly prescient at assessing whether someone has Parkinson’s just by smelling their skin. There are other techniques where a pocket sized spectrometer can assess the existence of 23 specific health disorders. There may well be other techniques that come to market that don’t require a thorough picture of a bacterial population profile to give medical professionals the identity of the root causes of someone’s ill health. That said, a thorough analysis may at least be of utility to the research community, even if we get to only eliminate ever rarer edge cases as we go.

Coming full circle

One thing that’s become eerily apparent to date is some of the common terminology between MicroBiome conditions and terms i’ve once heard used by Chinese Herbal Medicine (my wife’s psoriasis was cured after seeing a practitioner in Newbury for several weeks nearly 20 years ago). The concept of “balance” and the existence of “heat” (betraying the inflammation as your bacterial population of different species ebbs and flows in reaction to different conditions). Then consumption or application of specific plant matter that puts the bodies bacterial population back to operating norms.

Lingzhi Mushroom

Wild mushroom “Lingzhi” in China: cultivated in the far east, found to reduce Obesity

We’ve started to discover that some of the plants and herbs used in Chinese Medicine do have symbiotic effects on your bacterial population on conditions they are reckoned to help cure. With that, we are starting to see some statistically valid evidence that Chinese and Western medicine may well meet in the future, and be part of the same process in our future health management.

Until then, still work to do on the business plan.

The Internet of Things withers – while HealthKit ratchets along

FDA Approved Logo

I sometimes shudder at the estimates, as once outlined by executives at Cisco, that reckons the market for “Internet of Things” – communicating sensors embedded everywhere – would be likely be a $19 trillion market. A market is normally people willing to invest to make money, save money, to improve convenience or reduce waste. Or a mix. I then look at various analysts reports where they size both the future – and the current market size. I really can’t work out how they arrive at today’s estimated monetary amounts, let alone do the leap of faith into the future stellar revenue numbers. Just like IBM with their alleged ‘Cloud’ volumes, it’s difficult to make out what current products are stuffed inside the current alleged volumes.

One of my sons friends is a Sales Director for a distributor of sensors. There appear good use cases in Utility networks, such as monitoring water or gas flow and to estimate where leaks are appearing, and their loss dimensions. This is apparently already well served. As are industrial applications, based on pneumatics, fluid flow and hook ups to SCADA equipment. A bit of RFID so stock movements can be automatically checked through their distribution process. Outside of these, there are the 3 usual consumer areas; that of cars, health and home equipment control – the very three areas that both Apple and Google appear to be focussed on.

To which you can probably add Low Power Bluetooth Beacons, which will allow a phone handset to know it’s precise location, even where GPS co-ordinates are not available (inside shopping centres as an example). If you’re in an open field with sight of the horizon around you in all directions, circa 14 GPS satellites should be “visible”; if your handset sees two of them, it can suss your x and y co-ordinates to a meter or so. If it sees 3 satellites, that’s normally enough to calculate your x, y and z co-ordinates – ie: geographic location and height above sea level. If it can only see 1 or none, it needs another clue. Hence a super secret rollout where vendors are offering these LEB beacons and can trade the translation from their individual identifiers to their exact location.

In Apple’s case, Apple Passbook Loyalty Cards and Boarding Passes are already getting triggered with an icon on the iOS 8 home screen when you’re adjacent to a Starbucks outlet or Virgin Atlantic Check-in desk; one icon press, and your payment card or boarding pass is there for you already. I dare say the same functionality is appearing in Google Now on Android; it can already suss when I get out of my car and start to walk, and keeps a note of my parking location – so I can ask it to navigate me back precisely. It’s also started to tell me what web sites people look at when they are in the same restaurant that i’m sitting in (normally the web site or menu of the restaurant itself).

We’re in a lull between Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference, and next weeks equivalent Google I/O developer event, where Googles version of Health and HomeKit may well appear. Maybe further developments to link your cars Engine Control Unit to the Internet as well (currently better engaged by Phil Windley’s FUSE project). Apple appear to have done a stick and twist on connecting an iPhone to a cars audio system only, where the cars electronics use Blackberry’s QNX embedded Linux software; Android implementations from Google are more ambitious but (given long car model cycle times) likely to take longer to hit volume deployments. Unless we get an unexpected announcement at Google I/O next week.

My one surprise is that my previous blog post on Apples HomeKit got an order of magnitude more readers than my two posts on the Health app and the HealthKit API (posts here and here). I’d never expected that using your iPhone as a universal, voice controlled home lock/light/door remote would be so interesting to people. I also hear that Nest (now a Google subsidiary) are about to formally announce shipment of their 500,000th room temperature control. Not sure about their Smoke Alarm volumes to date though.

That apart, I noticed today that the US Food and Drug Administration had, in March, issued some clarifications on what type of mobile connected devices would not warrant regulatory classification as a medical device in the USA. They were:

  1. Mobile apps for providers that help track or manage patient immunizations by assessing the need for immunization, consent form, and immunization lot number

  2. Mobile apps that provide drug-drug interactions and relevant safety information (side effects, drug interactions, active ingredient) as a report based on demographic data (age, gender), clinical information (current diagnosis), and current medications

  3. Mobile apps that enable, during an encounter, a health care provider to access their patient’s personal health record (health information) that is either hosted on a web-based or other platform

So, it looks like Apple Health application and their HealthKit API have already skipped past the need for regulatory approvals there already. The only thing i’ve not managed to suss is how they measure blood pressure and glucose levels on a wearable device without being invasive. I’ve seen someone mention that a hi res camera is normally sufficient to detect pulse rates by seeing image changes on a picture of a patients wrist. I’ve also seen an inference that suitably equipped glasses can suss basic blood composition looking at what is exposed visibly in the iris of an eye. But if Apple’s iWatch – as commonly rumoured – can detect Glucose levels for Diabetes patients, i’m still agonising how they’d do it. Short of eating or attaching another (probably disposable) Low Energy Bluetooth sensor for the phone handset to collect data from.

That looks like it’ll be Q4 before we’ll all know the story. All I know right now is that Apple produce an iWatch, and indeed return the iPhone design to being more rounded like the 3S was, that my wife will expect me to be in the queue on release date to buy them both for her.

Kibo: Teaching Robotics to kids?

Kibo Robotic Kit - Kickstarter

I’m going to be punch drunk on the number of initiatives to support teaching programming to young kids, so my priority is to see ScratchJr make it into UK schools – if indeed the teachers think it would be a positive influence to fire up the imagination of their classes of 5-7 year old prospective programmers on their iPads.

That said, another US initiative has gone live on Kickstarter, this time for Kibo – a robot that kids program with a sequence of command bricks. No compute hardware needed with this – it’s all in the box.

The full details (and funding page) can be found here. They’re already halfway to their target. What do you think?

ScratchJr – programming for kids 5-7 – Fully Funded: yay!

ScratchJr UI

I’m absolutely delighted to report that ScratchJr – a tablet based system that teaches 5-7 year old kids how to program – duly hit its $80,000 funding goal just after bids closed on Kickstarter. With that, we have a version for the Apple iPad and a version for Android Tablets this year, and work is now underway to produce the associated teaching curriculum aids and materials.

Just waiting to get news of the ScratchJr t-shirt I get in exchange for my $45 contribution (which went via Amazon Payments as soon as the end date and successful funding level had been reached). I’ll order one in a size that should fit our 2-year old Granddaughter (and iPad Mini user) Ruby.

Full text of the announcement from the Project Lead Mitchel Resnick here.

If you haven’t seen it, I thoroughly recommend watching the video there. It’s an absolute delight to see kids so young speaking so authoritatively about the projects they have created on this platform at such a young age. The next step is to get Primary School teachers in the UK engaged with this; running something like the Education work we executed at Demon Internet (which got free and useful materials into over 95% of UK Secondary Schools for a cost of £50,000, plus £10,000 for associated competition prizes) would be fantastic, though mindful that there are many more primary schools than secondary ones here.

Three year lease, including support, insurance and warranty, for a tablet costs parents or their schools circa £10 per month over that term for an iPad Mini class device. Whether or not kids end up programming, it nevertheless gives them all sorts of other logic/sequencing skills applicable to a wide number of career options later in their lives.

ScratchJr in Use by Pupil

The older sibling product Scratch, the excellent Sugarlabs work (also being implemented on tablets) and Raspberry Pi also have a solid place, albeit slightly higher up the age range.

So, a gift well worth giving in my humble opinion. And kudos to the ScratchJr team for giving us a platform to fire up the imagination of kids from an even earlier age than before.



Blockchain: the ultimate and positive chaotic disruption

Light Bulb Lit Up

The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet“. Those were the words of Tim O’Reilly, owner of O’Reilly, producer of many of the definitive books on software systems and associated conferences. His company’s Radar blog is also noteworthy for it’s excellent peeks into the future of high technology related products and services. One subject seems to pass it by, and I can’t help think the implications are much more significant than people really comprehend yet; that of the technology that sits behind Bitcoin (Bitcoin itself is but a small part of it).

The mechanics of Bitcoin are described in the original Satoshi Nakamoto paper here. Alternatively, an earlier introductory blog post from me.

The main truly disruptive innovation with much wider utility is that of a Blockchain. A public record that is stored across many hundreds or thousands of machines, in hundreds of different legal jurisdictions, but together forming a definitive record of activity without any central control. A sort of ledger that lives in the worlds commons, and operable in a way that ensures a single digital object cannot be “double spent”; only transferred between entities.

Much of the economic activity in the world is currently served by institutions who possess “choke points” through which activity is carried and who charge (in some way) at the gate. If I want to send cash to someone, I typically pay commission or transaction charges to a number of institutions to do so. There are many areas that could be unleashed when transaction costs tend to zero and the record of some activity is stored in a publicly accessible entity without any central control:

  • Proof of Existence. One of the innovations of GIT (the Source Code Control System written by Linux author Linus Torvalds) is that every individual document/file is recorded in it’s database as a “hash”. When any piece of Digital material is passed through this piece of maths, the hash is a 8 byte “signature” that is effectively unique (the change of two random documents having the same hash is circa 1 in 83 million). So, you can immediately see, with very little comparison work, whether two documents are exactly the same or different. Manuel Araoz, a 25-year-old developer in Argentina, uses a blockchain to prove authoritatively that you had a specific document in your possession on a specific date, without having to publicly publish it’s content. The fact that electronic signatures can be part of the document being held (and hashed with the rest of its surrounding content) means that you have a distributed contract “system of record”.
  • Namecoin. The current Domain Name System (DNS) is effectively the web’s telephone directory that translates memorable names (like www.bbc.co.uk) into the Internet Protocol Address(es) at which that web site resides (in this instance, and 10 others). However, the central repositories where this information is stored can be systemically blocked or willingly corrupted by owners of the various choke points, or the governments under whom they operate from a legal jurisdiction perspective. Namecoin is an attempt to mirror the DNS in a widely distributed blockchain, with domain names ending “.bit”, and hence operationally difficult to corrupt or censor. Although I have no useful application for it at this stage, I have already registered “ianwaring.bit” to reserve my presence there.
  • Music Distribution. Following a Kickstarter type model, would you like to buy shares in a specific musicians new song? That way, you’d see a return on your investment if it proved popular and you managed to help promote it widely to a bigger audience. Piracy in reverse! The Blockchain protocol does have the ability to run such Assurance Contracts (ie: this project is funded only if pledges of a specific value are achieved by a certain date, or annulled if the target is not met by then), so there are similar precedents for Venture Capital, or even what has to date been tax funded Government projects for the public good. I sometimes wonder how HS2 would do if the UK Government ran the whole thing as a Kickstarter project, and see if the beneficiaries were willing to put money where their political mouths are!
  • Voting. One of the ultimate choke points where MPs act as a proxy for the voters in a geographic area they represent for a multi-year term. The act of multi-year elections is probably an edge case; it’d be more radical if I could choose when I want my MP to act as my proxy and when I wish to register my share of the decision making process personally instead. I somewhat doubt that folks currently in Westminster would wish to put their constituents in control of their own interests, despite how refreshing and re-engaged we’d feel as a result.
  • Vendor Relationship Management. This is the ultimate result of Doc Searl’s work on VRM, where we ask commercial entities to bid for our business. Given the low or zero transaction cost, you could delegate a lot of the associated work to software agents if the product or service was a commodity. Like a Taxi or self-driving car, as given in this excellent 25 minute talk by Mike Hearn, an ex-Google employee (it is a great talk to listen to – not least the effect when some of the actors in transactions are machines themselves, complete with their own bank accounts and long term trade related decision making). Even Yelp, TripAdvisor or Social Media recommendations would be more plausible if subjected to the authoritative “someone I can trust” standards that the underlying technology can provide.

I’d thoroughly recommend this article on Business Insider, which does a great job of highlighting some of the possibilities.

There are many challenges ahead. Some regulatory (I hope Politicians and our Public Servants do act in our long term best interests, without being victim of the lobbying of interests rendered on the wrong side of , or distorted out of shape, by a drive for our mutual good). Some technology (things like Bitcoin will need improvements to bring down the current 10 minute delay to provide definitive authentication, and to handle an increase in Blockchain size to handle the transaction volumes currently seen by Mastercard and Visa networks). But the potential applications are dizzying both in number and of disruptive impact to everyone.

As Fred Wilson, notable VC, said recently: Let’s go back and revisit the big innovations on the commercial Internet over the past twenty years. TCP/IP, HTTP, The Browser, Search, Social, Mobile, Blockchains. Each one of those innovations drove an investment cycle. Our 2004 fund was built during social. Our 2008 fund was built during social and the emergence of mobile. Our 2012 fund was built during the mobile downturn. And our 2014 fund will be built during the blockchain cycle. I am looking forward to it.

Bitcoin (which I described in greater detail here) was only the start. The main challenge now is one of identity, and protecting it from interlopers. You have to keep your private key insanely private (even to the extent of keeping it off Internet connected machines), as that is your definitive personal identifier that someone else could use to masquerade as the real you everywhere online. At least until something can check your own physiology (it is really you), and your state of mind (you haven’t been sectioned, frail nor threatened), prior to any transaction being authenticated. Or is that what the Apple iWatch will be all about?

Coding for Young Kids: two weeks, only £10,000 to go

ScratchJr Screenshot

ScratchJr Logo

I’m one backer on Kickstarter of a project to bring the programming language Scratch to 5-7 year olds. Called ScratchJr, it’s already showing great promise on iPads in schools in Massachussetts. The project has already surpassed it’s original $25,000 goal to finish it’s development for the iPad, and last week made it over the $55,000 stretch goal to release an Android version too. With two weeks to go, we are some $15,000 short of the last remaining stretch target ($80,000) needed to fund associated curriculum and teaching notes.

The one danger of tablets is that they tend to be used in “lean back” applications, primarily as a media consumer delivery devices. Hence a fear amongst some teachers that we’re facing a “Disneyfication” of use, almost like teaching people to read, but not to write. ScratchJr will give young students their first exposure to the joy of programming; not only useful for a future in IT, but also providing logic and design skills useful for many other fields that may stimulate their interest. I thought the 7-year old kids in this video were brilliant and authoritative on what they’d achieved to date:

I opted to pledge $45 to contribute and to buy a branded project t-shirt for my 2 year old granddaughter; there are a range of other funding options:

  • $5 for an email from the ScratchJr Cat
  • $10 for your name in the credits
  • $20 for a ScratchJr Colouring Book
  • $35 for some ScratchJr Stickers
  • $40 (+$5 for outside USA delivery) ScratchJr T-Shirt (Kid or Adult sizes)
  • $50 for an invite to a post launch webinar
  • $100 for a pre-launch webinar with the 2 project leaders
  • $300 to receive a beta version ahead of the public launch
  • $500 for a post-launch workshop in the Boston, Mass area
  • $1000+ for a pre-launch workshop in the Boston, Mass area
  • $2000+ to be named as a Platinum Sponsor in the Credits
  • $5000+ for lunch for up to 4 people with the 2 Project Leaders

I once had a project earlier in my career where we managed to get branded teaching materials (about “The Internet”) professionally produced and used in over 95% of UK secondary schools for an investment of £50,000 – plus a further £10,000 to pay for individual and school prizes. In that context, the price of this program is an absolute steal, and I feel well worth every penny. Being able to use this across the full spectrum of Primary Schools in the UK would be fantastic if teachers here could take full advantage of this great work.

So, why not join the backers? Deadline for pledges is 30th April, so please be quick! If you’d like to do so, contributions can be pledged here on Kickstarter.

ScratchJr Logo

Footnote: a TED video that covers Project Leaders Mitch Resnick’s earlier work on Scratch (taught to slightly older kids) lasts 15 minutes and can be found here. Scratch is also available for the Raspberry Pi; for a 10 minute course on how to code in it, i’d recommend this from Miles Berry of Roehampton University.

Great Technology. Where’s the Business Value?

Exponential Growth Bar GraphIt’s a familiar story. Some impressive technical development comes up, and the IT industry adopts what politicians will call a “narrative” to try push its adoption – and profit. Two that are in the early stages right now are “Wearables” and “Internet of Things”. I’m already seeing some outlandish market size estimates for both, and wondering how these map back to useful applications that people will pay for.

“Internet of Things” is predicated on an assumption that with low cost sensors and internet connected microcomputers embedded in the world around us, the volume of data thrown onto the Internet will necessitate a ready market needing to consume large gobs of hardware, software and services. One approach to try to rationalise this is to spot where there are inefficiencies in a value chain exist, and to see where technology will help remove them.

One of my sons friends runs a company that has been distributing sensors of all sorts for over 10 years. Thinking there may be an opportunity to build a business on top of a network of these things, I asked him what sort of applications his products were put to. It appears to be down to networks of flows in various utilities and environmental assets (water, gas, rivers, traffic) or in industrial process manufacturing. Add some applications of low power bluetooth beacons, then you have some human traffic monitoring in retail environments. I start running out of ideas for potential inefficiencies that these (a) can address and (b) that aren’t already being routinely exploited. One example is in water networks, where fluid flows across a pipe network can help quickly isolate the existence of leaks, markedly improving the supply efficiency. But there are already companies in place that do that and they have the requisite relationships. No gap there apparent.

One post on Gigaom showed some interesting new flexible electronic materials this week. The gotcha with most such materials is the need for batteries, the presence of which restricts the number of potential applications. One set of switches from Swiss company Algra could emit a 2.4GHz radio signal between 6-10 meters using only energy from someone depressing a button; the main extra innovations are that the result is very thin, and have (unlike predecessors) extremely long mechanical lifetimes. No outside power source required. So, just glue your door bells or light switches where you need them, and voila – done forever.

The other material that caught my eye was a flexible image sensor from ISORG (using Plastic Logic licensed technology). They managed to have a material that you could layer on the surface of a display, and which can read the surface of any object placed against it. No camera needed, and with minimal thickness and weight. Something impossible with a standard CMOS imaging scanner, because that needs a minimum distance to focus on the object above it. So, you could effectively have an inbuilt scanner on the surface of your tablet, not only for monochrome pictures, but even fingerprints and objects in close proximity – for contactless gesture control. Hmmm – smart scanning shelves in retail and logistics – now that may give users some vastly improved efficiencies along the way.

The source article is at: http://gigaom.com/2014/04/07/how-thin-flexible-electronics-will-revolutionize-everything-from-user-interfaces-to-packaging/

A whole field is opening up around collecting data from the Onboard Diagnostics Bus that exists in virtually every modern car now, but i’ve yet to explore that in any depth so far. I’ve just noticed a trickle of news articles about Phil Windley’s FUSE project on Kickstarter (here) and some emerging work by Google in the same vein (with the Open Automotive Alliance). Albeit like TVs, vehicle manufacturers have regulatory challenges and/or slow replacement cycles stopping them moving at the same pace as the computer and electronic industries do.

Outside of that, i’m also seeing a procession of potential wearables, from glasses, to watches, to health sensors and to clip-on cameras.

Glasses and Smart Watches in general are another much longer story (will try and do that justice tomorrow), but these are severely limited by the need for battery power in limited space to so much more than their main application – which is simple display of time and pertinent notifications.

Health sensors are pretty well established already. I have a FitBit One on me at all times bar when i’m sleeping. However, it’s main use these days is to map the number of steps I take into an estimated distance I walk daily, which I tap pro-rata into Weight Loss Resources (I know a walk to our nearest paper shop and back is circa 10,000 steps – and 60 mins of moderate speeds – enough to give a good estimate of calories expended). I found the calorie count questionable and the link to MyFitnessPal a source of great frustration for my wife; it routinely swallows her calorie intake and rations out the extra extra calories earnt (for potential increased food consumption) very randomly over 1-3 days. We’ve never been able to correlate it’s behaviour rationally, so we largely ignore that now.

There’s lots of industry speculation around now that Apple’s upcoming iWatch will provide health related sensors, and to send readings into a Passbook-like Health Monitoring application on a users iPhone handset. One such report here. That would probably help my wife, who always appears to suffer a level of anxiety whenever her blood pressure is taken – which worsens her readings (see what happens after 22 days of getting used to taking daily readings – things settle down):

Jane Waring Blood Pressure Readings

I dare say if the reading was always on, she’d soon forget it’s existence and the readings reflect a true reality. In the meantime, there are also feelings that the same Health monitoring application will be able to take readings from other vendors sensors, and that Apple are trying to build an ecosystem of personal health devices that can interface to it’s iPhone based “hub” – and potentially from there onto Internet based health services. We can but wait until Apple are ready to admit it (or not!) at upcoming product announcement events this year.

The main other wearables today are cameras. I’ve seen some statistics on the effect of Police Officers wearing these in the USA:

US Police Officer with Camera

One of my youngest sons friends is a serving Police Officer here, and tells us that wearing of cameras in his police force is encouraged but optional. That said, he said most officers are big fans of using them. When turned off, they have a moving 30 second video buffer, so when first switched on, they have a record of what happened up to 30 seconds before that switch was applied. Similarly, when turned off, they continue filming for a further 30 seconds before returning to their looping state.

Perhaps surprising, he says that his interactions are such that he’s inclined to use less force even though, if you saw footage, you’d be amazed at his self restraint. In the USA, Police report that when people they’re engaging know they’re being filmed/recorded, they are far more inclined to behave themselves and not to try to spin “he said that, I said that” yarns.

There are all sorts of privacy implications if everyone starts wearing such devices, and they are getting increasingly smaller. Muvi cameras as one example, able to record 70-90 minutes of hi res video from their 55mm tall, clip attached enclosure. Someone was recently prosecuted in Seattle for leaving one of these lens-up on a path between buildings frequented by female employees at his company campus (and no, I didn’t see any footage – just news of his arrest!).

We’re moving away from what we thought was going to be a big brother world – but to one where such cameras use is “democratised” across the whole population.

Muvi Camcorder


I don’t think anyone has really comprehended the full effect of this upcoming ubiquity, but I suspect that a norm will be to expect that the presence of a working camera to be indicated vividly. I wonder how long it will take for that to become a new normal – and if there are other business efficiencies that their use – and that of other “Internet of Things” sensors in general – can lay before us all.

That said, I suspect industry estimates for “Internet of Things” revenues, as they stand today, along with a lack of perceived “must have this” applications, make them feel hopelessly optimistic to me.

Liberating Kids from Stifling Parents – did someone say “Bang”?

Nuclear Explosion Mushroom Cloud

One of the joys of parenthood is seeing the delight in your kids pulling things together using tools available to them – releasing their creativity, and fostering inquisitive nature. It’s natural and is a wide departure from rote learning (where the ethos is to please don’t make mistakes – mistakes are bad!). A real joy comes from them doing something spectacular, having a crazy idea, applying tools/techniques they’ve learnt, mashing up ideas from various sources, testing and iterating until they have – or do – something memorable.

I saw a comment from a teacher this morning where a parent had approached, and asked that his kiddie not be given access to Minecraft on a Raspberry Pi, because he could be destructive in it. I mean, Jesus.

I remember when I was at school, the comedy was watching someone in a Chemistry lesson grab a waste paper bin, turn it upside down, pierce a small hole in the base, place it over the gas tap (that usually supplied gas to bunsen burners), filling it with gas, light the small hole and walk away. After a minute or two, the flame will have burnt enough of the gas and drawn air from underneath to form an explosive mixture, and BANG! A loud noise, an upside down blue mushroom of flame, and a teacher in overalls standing immediately next to the result with his back to it as it exploded. After an initial gruff “Who did that?” and a classmates immediate confession (from the other side of the room), his punishment was to present to the class what he’d done and how it worked. Then a lunchtime picking up litter.

The same guy, by seemingly intelligent questioning of the teacher over a number of lessons, worked out a way of synthesising Nitrogen Tri-Iodide from the chemical bottles close at hand during lessons. This substance is a touch sensitive explosive; the traditional trick was to leave an innocuous slither of it on door handles, resulting in a “bang” and sparks when someone went to open the door. He duly made some, and carried it out of class to the next lesson (Music), that day taught by a student teacher. He left it drying on the radiator, giving it an occasional nudge with a ruler to see if it was setting. About 15 minutes in listening to some classical music – BANG! Student holding ruler, very red in the face with embarrassment. The student teacher just said (with apparent zeal in his interest): “How did you do that?”. Following a brief explanation, the teacher just waxed lyrical about how some of his colleagues at school had sneaked some Chloroform out of Science class at his school, and spread some over the piano before they were to be victim of their teachers piano recital. It just got slower, and slower…

We also had a spate of people screwing two bolt heads into a common nut, filling the gap in the middle with matchstick heads. Thrown into the air, it typically let off a bang on landing. The innovation then was to attach string around the two bolts, so you didn’t have to spend too much time finding both halves afterwards. Main kudos to Nathan Berry, who found a two 1″ bolts in his Dad’s garage and elected to tighten the work with a spanner, bolts held tight with his Dad’s workshop vice. I suspect the hole resulting from it triggering early while he was still pulling on the spanner is still very much there in that garage roof.

So, few detentions. You only got that for suggesting loudly that “titration” was two words, or for mounting the front of Chemistry teachers Mini on bricks, causing it’s engine to scream as he tried to reverse out to go home. If indeed said teacher could pin it on anyone.

Kids find impressive bangs they’ve engineered are very memorable – for all the right reasons. It fires their imagination. Certainly much more so than the most enthusiastic of “beaten-into-ultimate-safety” teacher mixing two chemicals in a test tube and showing delight when they change to another colour. Snore!

These days, parents are scared into thinking their kids are about to be abducted and must be kept off the street (in wide contrast to the distances I covered with friends on my bike – with no mobile comms – when I was young). A result of the tabloid press stoking up fear in parents in their pursuit of selling printed newspapers (statistically invalid – the once in a decade occurrences are normally by a person known to the victim – but that doesn’t sell ink and paper). Or of trying to protect young males from their pursuit of pornographic images; the end result is a generation of kids who are driven to know enough to engineer VPN connections and to use TOR in that pursuit. I’d be first in line to take the law into my own hands if I found anyone preying on vulnerable kids. However, I feel good teaching of children, the setting of acceptable behaviour boundaries, and being there if they feel in any way uncomfortable about anything, is normally enough without smothering their natural inquisitive nature.

I’m a big fan of getting technology into kids hands early. One of my female relatives in the USA is a child minder, and I noticed a post on Facebook logging what her 7 year old customer was doing. Her first post said “This guy has been playing Minecraft for 2 hours. It looks very retro on the screen. Is this sort of behaviour normal?”. A bit later on she posted again to say “He’s now watching Minecraft Videos on YouTube!”. Appears to me a mirror of kids i’ve seen playing Minecraft this side of the Atlantic. It is a tremendous Educational asset that kids enjoy using.

I love the work of the Raspberry Pi foundation, and would help anyone get their kids hacking on that platform using Open Source software. Of Minecraft, which kids everyone seem to have embraced. Similarly impressed with the early work of Seymour Papert teaching kids to program with Logo. Likewise for Sugar Labs, taking their Linux based Software (originally part of the MIT based “One Laptop per Child” project) to millions of kids in developing countries around the world. Tablet versions coming!

Kids around me these days are very touch-based Phone and Tablet native. My 2 year old granddaughter routinely plays YouTube videos, views the Photo Library and plays games on her parents iPhones – and on my iPad Mini. She’s even bemused that “Skip Ad” doesn’t work on the TV when its playing Terrestrial TV Channels. Using my iPad Mini to such an extent that she now has one of her own at our house.

That said, it’s a small part of her world. She thoroughly enjoys nothing more than wandering in the great outdoors and where many other things feed her curiosity. But she has the resources to look things up as she grows – alongside her current diet of YouTube “Peppa Pig” and “Ben and Holly” videos.

This week, i’ve seen some work on a Kickstarter Project on a cut down version of the “Scratch” language called “ScratchJr“, which is being used to teach programming to 5-7 year olds. See this:

Isn’t it brilliant to seeing young kids like this talk with such authority on the work their doing with this platform? With that, i’m contributing money to help them ship that on iOS and Android tablets this year. If you’d like to join me, you can do so at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2023634798/scratchjr-coding-for-young-kids. They are the future and worth every penny.