FEATURED STORY

Avoiding the tragedy of the anticommons

We're at the start of a revolution in biology, and it's time for a biological commons.

DNA_Extraction_in_Action_

Editor’s note: this post originally appeared in BioCoder Fall 2014; it is published here with permission. Download a free copy of the new issue here.

A few months ago, I singled out an article in BioCoder about the appearance of open source biology. In his white paper for the Bio-Commons, Rüdiger Trojok writes about a significantly more ambitious vision for open biology: a bio-commons that holds biological intellectual property in trust for the good of all. He also articulates the tragedy of the anticommons, the nightmarish opposite of a bio-commons in which progress is difficult or impossible because “ambiguous and competing intellectual property claims…deter sharing and weaken investment incentives.” Each individual piece of intellectual property is carefully groomed and preserved, but it’s impossible to combine the elements; it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, in which every piece is locked in a separate safe.

We’ve certainly seen the anticommons in computing. Patent trolls are a significant disincentive to innovation; regardless of how weak the patent claim may be, most start-ups just don’t have the money to defend. Could biotechnology head in this direction, too? In the U.S., the Supreme Court has ruled that human genes cannot be patented. But that ruling doesn’t apply to genes from other organisms, and arguably doesn’t apply to modifications of human genes. (I don’t know the status of genetic patents in other countries.) The patentability of biological “inventions” has the potential to make it more difficult to do cutting-edge research in areas like synthetic biology and pharmaceuticals (Trojok points specifically to antibiotics, where research is particularly stagnant). Read more…

Comment: 1

BioCoder strikes again

New issue: bioreactors and food production, modeling a worm's brain on a computer and letting it drive a robot, and more.

BioCoderCover_Page_01The fifth issue of BioCoder is here! We’ve made it into our second year: this revolution is in full swing.

Rather than talk about how great this issue is (though it is great), I’d like to ask a couple of questions. Post your answers in the comments; we won’t necessarily reply, but we will will read them and take them into account.

  • We are always interested in new content, and we’ll take a look at almost anything you send to BioCoder@oreilly.com. In particular, we’d like to get more content from the many biohacker labs, incubators, etc. We know there’s a lot of amazing experimentation out there. But we don’t know what it is; we only see the proverbial tip of the iceberg. What’s the best way to find out what’s going on?
  • While we’ve started BioCoder as a quarterly newsletter, that’s a format that already feels a bit stodgy. Would you be better served if BioCoder went web-native? Rather than publishing eight or 10 articles every three months, we’d publish three or four articles a month online. Would that be more useful? Or do you like things the way they are?

And yes, we do have a great issue, with articles about a low-cost MiniPCR, bioreactors and food production, and what happens when you model a worm’s brain on a computer and let it drive a robot. Plus, an interview with Kyle Taylor of the glowing plant project, the next installment in a series on lab safety, and much more. Read more…

Comment

Commodity data analytics for health care

Predixion service could signal a trend for smaller health facilities.

Analytics are expensive and labor intensive; we need them to be routine and ubiquitous. I complained earlier this year that analytics are hard for health care providers to muster because there’s a shortage of analysts and because every data-driven decision takes huge expertise.

Currently, only major health care institutions such as Geisinger, the Mayo Clinic, and Kaiser Permanente incorporate analytics into day-to-day decisions. Research facilities employ analytics teams for clinical research, but perhaps not so much for day-to-day operations. Large health care providers can afford departments of analysts, but most facilities — including those forming accountable care organizations — cannot.

Imagine that you are running a large hospital and are awake nights worrying about the Medicare penalty for readmitting patients within 30 days of their discharge. Now imagine you have access to analytics that can identify about 40 measures that combine to predict a readmission, and a convenient interface is available to tell clinicians in a simple way which patients are most at risk of readmission. Better still, the interface suggests specific interventions to reduce readmissions risk: giving the patient a 30-day supply of medication, arranging transportation to rehab appointments, etc. Read more…

Comment

Intoxicating machines

The revolutionary thing about desktop machines is that they'll make experimentation easier.

Carvey_Screenshot_cropped

Cropped screenshot of Carvey. Source: the Carvey Kickstarter campaign.

“Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about,” [Richard] Feynman later explained. “The trouble with computers is you play with them.”
— George Dyson, describing the beginning of the Manhattan Project’s computing effort in Turing’s Cathedral.

I’ve been reading George Dyson’s terrific history of the early development of the digital computer, and the quote above struck me. Even when they were little more than room-sized adding machines that had to be painstakingly programmed with punchcards, computers offered an intoxicating way to experiment. Most programmers can probably remember their first few scripts and the thrilling feeling of performing millions of operations in seconds. Computers let us take some abstracted human process and repeat it quickly, at almost no cost, with easy modification along the way. Read more…

Comment: 1

Open data for open lands

Recreation.gov should be a platform, not a silo.

President Obama’s well-publicized national open data policy (pdf) makes it clear that government data is a valuable public resource for which the government should be making efforts to maximize access and use. This policy was based on lessons from previous government open data success stories, such as weather data and GPS, which form the basis for countless commercial services that we take for granted today and that deliver enormous value to society. (You can see an impressive list of companies reliant on open government data via GovLab’s Open Data 500 project.)

Based on this open data policy, I’ve been encouraging entrepreneurs to invest their time and ingenuity to explore entrepreneurial opportunities based on government data. I’ve even invested (through O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures) in one such start-up, Hipcamp, which provides user-friendly interfaces to making reservations at national and state parks.

A better system is sorely needed. The current reservation system, managed by the Active Network / Reserve America is clunky and almost unusable. Hipcamp changes all that, making it a breeze to reserve camping spots. Read more…

Comment

What happens when fashion meets data: The O’Reilly Radar Podcast

Liza Kindred on the evolving role of data in fashion and the growing relationship between tech and fashion companies.

Editor’s note: you can subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar Podcast through iTunes, SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

In this podcast episode, I talk with Liza Kindred, founder of Third Wave Fashion and author of the new free report “Fashioning Data: How fashion industry leaders innovate with data and what you can learn from what they know.” Kindred addresses the evolving role data and analytics are playing in the fashion industry, and the emerging connections between technology and fashion companies. “One of the things that fashion is doing better than maybe any other industry,” Kindred says, “is facilitating conversations with users.”

Gathering and analyzing user data creates opportunities for the fashion and tech industries alike. One example of this is the trend toward customization. Read more…

Comment