Andy Oram

Andy Oram is an editor at O'Reilly Media. An employee of the company since 1992, Andy currently specializes in open source technologies and software engineering. His work for O'Reilly includes the first books ever released by a U.S. publisher on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer, and the 2007 best-seller Beautiful Code.

Graph tools forge path to new solutions

Find emergent properties and solutions to new computing problems with graphs

alchemyjsGraph databases haven’t made the news much because, I think, they don’t fit in convenient categories. They certainly aren’t the relational databases we’re all familiar with, nor are they the arbitrary keys and values provided by many NoSQL stores. But in a highly connected world–where it’s not what you know but whom you know–it makes intuitive sense to arrange our knowledge as nodes and edges.

Ted Nelson, inventor of the hyperlink, recognized the power of viewing life in graphs. After the implosion of his historic Xanadu project, he embarked on a graph database tool called ZigZag. The most modern instantiations of graphs–the Neo4j store and the Alchemy.js tool for interactively visualizing graphs–were well represented this year at O’Reilly’s Open Source convention.

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OpenStack creates a structure for managing change without a benevolent dictator

Can education and peer review keep a huge open source project on track?

When does a software project grow to the point where one must explicitly think about governance? The term “governance” is stiff and gawky, but doing it well can carry a project through many a storm. Over the past couple years, the crucial OpenStack project has struggled with governance at least as much as with the technical and organizational issues of coordinating inputs from thousands of individuals and many companies.

A major milestone was the creation of the OpenStack Foundation, which I reported on in 2011. This event successfully started the participants’ engagement with the governance question, but it by no means resolved it. This past Monday, I attended some of the Open Cloud Day at O’Reilly’s Open Source convention, and talked to a lot of people working for or alongside the OpenStack Foundation about getting contributors to work together successfully in an open community. Read more…

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Jeremy Rifkin unveils a return to the local in an interconnected future

Internet of Things, local energy sources, and online collaboration underlie the Zero Marginal Cost Society.

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Stratasys’ Education, R&D departments and MIT’s Self-Assembly Lab are researching 4D printing — manufacturing one-off objects that can change their shapes or other physical characteristics in response to their environment. (View the video.)

Jeremy Rifkin is always predicting an avalanche of change: substitutes for human labor in The End of Work, pervasive genetic engineering in Algeny, and so on. Several interlocking themes run through his latest book, The Zero Marginal Cost Society. Behind everything lies the renewed importance of local resources: local energy production, local manufacturing, local governance. And the Internet that ties us all together (evolving into the Internet of Things) will, ironically, bolster local power.
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Online communities could benefit from the power of offline meetings

Face-to-face engagement can cement relationships and build depth in online communities.

As software vendors, open source projects, and companies in all fields rush to gather communities around themselves, I’m bothered that we haven’t spent much time studying the lessons face-to-face communities have forged over decades of intensive work by a dynamic community organizing movement. I have spoken twice at the Community Leadership Summit (CLS) about the tradition of community organizing as practiced by the classic social action group, Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation. Because we all understand that a community is people — not software, not meeting places, not rules or norms — it’s worth looking at how face-to-face communities flourish.

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Storytelling and urban organizing session at CLS

Last week’s CLS event had several talks and sessions about face-to-face organizing, which the attendees liked to call offline meetings because we assume so much interaction between groups takes place nowadays on the Internet. As one can find at CLS, a passionate confluence and sharing among dedicated “people people,” there’s a great deal of power in offline meetings. An evening at a bar — or an alternative location for those who are uncomfortable in bars — can cement relationships and provide depth to the formal parts of the day. Read more…

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Where did the issue of health data exchange disappear to?

More visible at Health Privacy Summit than Health Datapalooza.

On the first morning of the biggest conference on data in health care–the Health Datapalooza in Washington, DC–newspapers reported a bill allowing the Department of Veterans Affairs to outsource more of its care, sending veterans to private health care providers to relieve its burdensome shortage of doctors.

There has been extensive talk about the scandals at the VA and remedies for them, including the political and financial ramifications of partial privatization. Republicans have suggested it for some time, but for the solution to be picked up by socialist Independent Senator Bernie Sanders clinches the matter. What no one has pointed out yet, however–and what makes this development relevant to the Datapalooza–is that such a reform will make the free flow of patient information between providers more crucial than ever.

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Sequencing, cloud computing, and analytics meet around genetics and pharma

Bio-IT World shows what is possible and what is being accomplished

If your data consists of one million samples, but only 100 have the characteristics you’re looking for, and if each of the million samples contains 250,000 attributes, each of which is built of thousands of basic elements, you have a big data problem. This is kind of challenge faced by the 2,700 Bio-IT World attendees, who discover genetic interactions and create drugs for the rest of us.

Often they are looking for rare (orphan) diseases, or for cohorts who share a rare combination of genetic factors that require a unique treatment. The data sets get huge, particularly when the researchers start studying proteomics (the proteins active in the patients’ bodies).

So last week I took the subway downtown and crossed the two wind- and rain-whipped bridges that the city of Boston built to connect to the World Trade Center. I mingled for a day with attendees and exhibitors to find what data-related challenges they’re facing and what the latest solutions are. Here are some of the major themes I turned up.

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Health IT is a growth area for programmers

New report covers areas of innovation and their difficulties

infofixO’Reilly recently released a report I wrote called The Information Technology Fix for Health: Barriers and Pathways to the Use of Information Technology for Better Health Care. Along with our book Hacking Healthcare, I hope this report helps programmers who are curious about Health IT see what they need to learn and what they in turn can contribute to the field.

Computers in health are a potentially lucrative domain, to be sure, given a health care system through which $2.8 trillion, or $8.915 per person, passes through each year in the US alone. Interest by venture capitalists ebbs and flows, but the impetus to creative technological hacking is strong, as shown by the large number of challenges run by governments, pharmaceutical companies, insurers, and others.

Some things you should consider doing include:

Join open source projects 

Numerous projects to collect and process health data are being conducted as free software; find one that raises your heartbeat and contribute. For instance, the most respected health care system in the country, VistA from the Department of Veterans Affairs, has new leadership in OSEHRA, which is trying to create a community of vendors and volunteers. You don’t need to understand the oddities of the MUMPS language on which VistA is based to contribute, although I believe some knowledge of the underlying database would be useful. But there are plenty of other projects too, such as the OpenMRS electronic record system and the projects that cooperate under the aegis of Open Health Tools

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Business models that make the Internet of Things feasible

The bid for widespread home use may drive technical improvements.

For some people, it’s too early to plan mass consumerization of the Internet of Things. Developers are contentedly tinkering with Arduinos and clip cables, demonstrating cool one-off applications. We know that home automation can save energy, keep the elderly and disabled independent, and make life better for a lot of people. But no one seems sure how to realize this goal, outside of security systems and a few high-end items for luxury markets (like the Nest devices, now being integrated into Google’s grand plan).

But what if the willful creation of a mass consumer market could make the technology even better? Perhaps the Internet of Things needs a consumer focus to achieve its potential. This view was illuminated for me through a couple recent talks with Mike Harris, CEO of the home automation software platform Zonoff.

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Advances in health IT must be viewed as a whole

New report ties together devices, data, records, and aspects of care.

Reformers in health care claim gigantic disruption on the horizon: devices that track our movements, new treatments through massive data crunching, fluid electronic records that reflect the patient’s status wherever she goes, and even the end of the doctor’s role. But predictions in the area of health IT are singularly detached from the realities of the technical environment that are supposed to make them happen.

To help technologists, clinicians, and the rest of us judge the state of health IT, I’ve released a report titled “The Information Technology Fix for Health: Barriers and Pathways to the Use of Information Technology for Better Health Care.” It offers an overview of each area of innovation to see what’s really happening and what we need to make it progress further and faster.

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Visualizing Health IT: A holistic overview

O'Reilly report covers major trends and tries to connect the neurons

If visualization is key to comprehending data, the field of health IT calls for better visualization. I am not talking here of pretty charts and animations. I am talking, rather, of a holistic, unified understanding of the bustle taking place in different corners of health: the collection and analysis of genetic data, the design of slim medical devices that replace refrigerator-sized pieces of equipment, the data crunching at hospitals delving into demographic data to identify at-risk patients.

There is no dearth of health reformers offering their visions for patient engagement, information exchange, better public health, and disruptive change to health industries. But they often accept too freely the promise of technology, without grasping how difficult the technical implementations of their reforms would be. Furthermore, no document I have found pulls together the various trends in technology and explores their interrelationships.

I have tried to fill this gap with a recently released report: The Information Technology Fix for Health: Barriers and Pathways to the Use of Information Technology for Better Health Care. This posting describes some of the issues it covers.

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