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.

Pursuing adoption of free and open source software in governments

LibrePlanet explores hopes and hurdles.

Free and open source software creates a natural — and even necessary — fit with government. I joined a panel this past weekend at the Free Software Foundation conference LibrePlanet on this topic and have covered it previously in a journal article and talk. Our panel focused on barriers to its adoption and steps that free software advocates could take to reach out to government agencies.

LibrePlanet itself is a unique conference: a techfest with mission — an entirely serious, feasible exploration of a world that could be different. Participants constantly ask: how can we replace the current computing environment of locked-down systems, opaque interfaces, intrusive advertising-dominated services, and expensive communications systems with those that are open and free? I’ll report a bit on this unusual gathering after talking about government.
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Open data can drive partnerships with government

An exploration of themes in Joel Gurin's book Open Data Now.

As governments and businesses — and increasingly, all of us who are Internet-connected — release data out in the open, we come closer to resolving the tiresomely famous and perplexing quote from Stewart Brand: “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive.” Open data brings home to us how much free information is available and how productive it is in its free state, but one subterranean thread I found in Joel Gurin’s book Open Data Now highlights an important point: information is very expensive.

In this article, I’ll explore a few themes that piqued my interest in Gurin’s book: the value of open data, the expense it entails, the questions of how much we can use and trust it, and the role the general public and the private sector play in bringing us data’s benefits. This is not meant to be a summary or a review of Gurin’s book; it is an exploration of themes that interest me, inspired by my reading of Gurin.

Open, trustworthy, and useful

“Open data” occupies hierarchies of usefulness. One way of describing its usefulness is the structure of its presentation, as Gurin and others such as Tim Berners-Lee have pointed out. Much data is still fairly unstructured, like the reviews and social media status postings that people generate by the millions and that are funneled into eager consumption by marketing analysts. Some data is more structured, existing as tables. And finally, a tiny fragment can be reached through the RESTful APIs supported by libraries in every modern programming language. Read more…

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Can data provide the trust we need in health care?

Collecting actionable data is a challenge for today's data tools

One of the problems dragging down the US health care system is that nobody trusts one another. Most of us, as individuals, place faith in our personal health care providers, which may or may not be warranted. But on a larger scale we’re all suspicious of each other:

  • Doctors don’t trust patients, who aren’t forthcoming with all the bad habits they indulge in and often fail to follow the most basic instructions, such as to take their medications.
  • The payers–which include insurers, many government agencies, and increasingly the whole patient population as our deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses ascend–don’t trust the doctors, who waste an estimated 20% or more of all health expenditures, including some thirty or more billion dollars of fraud each year.
  • The public distrusts the pharmaceutical companies (although we still follow their advice on advertisements and ask our doctors for the latest pill) and is starting to distrust clinical researchers as we hear about conflicts of interest and difficulties replicating results.
  • Nobody trusts the federal government, which pursues two (contradictory) goals of lowering health care costs and stimulating employment.

Yet everyone has beneficent goals and good ideas for improving health care. Doctors want to feel effective, patients want to stay well (even if that desire doesn’t always translate into action), the Department of Health and Human Services champions very lofty goals for data exchange and quality improvement, clinical researchers put their work above family and comfort, and even private insurance companies are trying moving to “fee for value” programs that ensure coordinated patient care.

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Big data and privacy: an uneasy face-off for government to face

MIT workshop kicks off Obama campaign on privacy

Thrust into controversy by Edward Snowden’s first revelations last year, President Obama belatedly welcomed a “conversation” about privacy. As cynical as you may feel about US spying, that conversation with the federal government has now begun. In particular, the first of three public workshops took place Monday at MIT.

Given the locale, a focus on the technical aspects of privacy was appropriate for this discussion. Speakers cheered about the value of data (invoking the “big data” buzzword often), delineated the trade-offs between accumulating useful data and preserving privacy, and introduced technologies that could analyze encrypted data without revealing facts about individuals. Two more workshops will be held in other cities, one focusing on ethics and the other on law.

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The technical aspects of privacy

The first of three public workshops kicked off a conversation with the federal government on data privacy in the US.

Thrust into controversy by Edward Snowden’s first revelations last year, President Obama belatedly welcomed a “conversation” about privacy. As cynical as you may feel about US spying, that conversation with the federal government has now begun. In particular, the first of three public workshops took place Monday at MIT.

Given the locale, a focus on the technical aspects of privacy was appropriate for this discussion. Speakers cheered about the value of data (invoking the “big data” buzzword often), delineated the trade-offs between accumulating useful data and preserving privacy, and introduced technologies that could analyze encrypted data without revealing facts about individuals. Two more workshops will be held in other cities, one focusing on ethics and the other on law. Read more…

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Internet of Things in celebration and provocation at MIT

IoTFest reveals exemplary applications as well as challenges

Last Saturday’s IoT Festival at MIT became a meeting ground for people connecting the physical world. Embedded systems developers, security experts, data scientists, and artists all joined in this event. Although it was called a festival, it had a typical conference format with speakers, slides, and question periods. Hallway discussions were intense.

However you define the Internet of Things (O’Reilly has its own take on it, in our Solid blog site and conference), a lot stands in the way of its promise. And these hurdles are more social than technical.

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Hurdles to the Internet of Things prove more social than technical

MIT's IoTFest reveals the IoT poses as much challenge as it does promise.

Last Saturday’s IoT Festival at MIT became a meeting-ground for people connecting the physical world. Embedded systems developers, security experts, data scientists, and artists all joined in this event. Although it was called a festival, it had a typical conference format with speakers, slides, and question periods. Hallway discussions were intense.

However you define the Internet of Things (O’Reilly has its own take on it, in our Solid blog site and conference), a lot stands in the way of its promise. And these hurdles are more social than technical.

Participants eye O'Reilly books

Participants eye O’Reilly books (Credit: IoT Festival)

Some of the social discussion we have to have before we get the Internet of Things rolling are:

  • What effects will all this data collection, and the injection of intelligence into devices, have on privacy and personal autonomy? And how much of these precious values are we willing to risk to reap the IoT’s potential for improving life, saving resources, and lowering costs?

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Health hackathon brings to life agile solutions for unmet needs

Winners of the Blue Button Innovation Challenge

I think the main achievement of hackathons can be measured not by what apps are developed–reportedly, few are commercialized and maintained–but by people who find each other. The Blue Button Innovation Challenge brought together a lot of professionals who had never met before, and many formed teams that created really fun and useful apps that make you think, “Why hasn’t anyone done this yet?”

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Health technology brings care plans alive

Finalists at Merck|Heritage Provider Network Innovation Challenge

Challenges and hackathons are meant to surprise you. If the winner is a known leader in the field with lists of familiar credentials festooning the team’s resumes, there was no point to starting the challenge in the first place.

Pharmaceutical company Merck and the Heritage Provider Network, the largest physician-led health network in the US, were looking for something new when they launched their challenge on diabetes and heart disease. These conditions are virtual epidemics, world-wide.

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Court prods FCC in unexpected direction in this week’s Verizon ruling

Network neutrality was on the retreat shortly after the Telecom Act of 1996.

A court ruling this past Tuesday on FCC “network neutrality” regulation closes and opens a few paths in a three-way chess game that has been going on for years between the US District Court of Appeals, the FCC, and the major Internet server providers. (Four-way if you include Congress, and five-way if you include big Internet users such as Google — so, our chess game is coming closer to Chinese Checkers at this point.)

A lot of bloggers, and even news headlines, careened into histrionics (“Net neutrality is dead. Bow to Comcast and Verizon, your overlords“). The Free Press, although oversimplifying the impact, did correctly link the ruling to what they and many other network neutrality supporters consider the original sin of FCC rulings: eviscerating the common carrier regulation of broadband providers.

Even better, many commenters noted the ambiguities and double messages in the ruling. Unlike a famous earlier ruling on Comcast regulation, this week’s court ruling spends a good deal of time affirming the FCC’s right to regulate Internet providers. Notably, pp. 35-36 essentially confirm the value and validity of network neutrality (in the form of promoting innovation at the edges by placing no restraints on transmissions).
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