Tuesday, June 27, 2006

IT systems for aid

I wrote Tuesday, June 06, 2006:
Over the last few days I have helped arrange for the deployment of a web based open source disaster management system for the May Indonesian earthquake. ...
The Australian newspaper has an item today about it:
As the professional association for those working in information and communications technology, the ACS works to ensure the beneficial use of hi-tech in the community. So when we had the opportunity to support the deployment of the Sahana disaster management system after last month's Indonesian earthquake, we were quick to respond. ...
Technology lifeline in volcanic zone, The Australian, 27 June 2006
One issue which has come up is the situation where people are not in a camp, but stay near the remains of their home. This would also apply, in a bird flu outbreak, where people would recover at home. Can Sahana and similar systems be of use in these situations?

Something which also occurs to me is if these systems should have a public relations component, for helping deal with the media. Without good use of the media there may be no aid to distribute and people may not know where to get what aid there is. A significant part of the Australia government's national simulation of an outbreak of avian influenza seems to have dealt with how to handle the media.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Health smart card not such a smart idea

The Human Services Minister has proposed an Australian Government smart card to be carried by those receiving for health and social services. These has been criticism of the project on privacy grounds, but I had a look at it from the point of view of an IT project.

The project looks like a high risk one to me and may not be needed if fraud prevention measures were correctly implemented in the current system.

The scope of the project could be reduced to increase the chance of success. Those involved in the project need to keep in mind that by including patient records in the system they increase the cost and risk. Failure of the system could result in death or serious injury to patients, exposing the Minister, and others involved, to criminal prosecution.

Monday, June 19, 2006

CSIRO Air Hockey Table a Hit

Airhockey Over a Distance. CSIRO Photo.
About a year ago I started bumping into people from the CSIRO ICT Centre asking about Air Hockey.

The centre needed a project to demonstrate their ICT abilities and had decided on a remote air hockey game. With this two people in separate locations could play. One would shoot a puck along their half of a real table. At the mid point the puck would disappear into cyberspace and reappear a moment later on the other half of the table thousands of kilometers away. CSIRO people wanted advice on how to do this. Some people asked me enthusiastically ("we have this great project..."), some apologetically ("it wasn't my idea, but ...").

Rather than use a real air hockey table, I suggested using the type of system used for aircraft cargo handling, with a floor made up of two sets of wheels at right angles . One of these systems was proposed for unloading high speed military transport ships and I suggested the air hockey table could result in a spinoff cargo system for vehicles and small aircraft (such as the advise new helicopters).

But the main thing I kept saying was what a silly idea building an air hockey table was. This would waste resources on a trivial application with little, if any, practical use. Even if the system worked, all it would do is give the impression the CSIRO had poor business judgment and was wasting government money on useless activities. Needless to say they stopped asking me for advice.

Months went past and when wandering through the CeBIT show in Sydney, I saw the completed air hockey table. CSIRO had come up with a better idea than mine for implementation. They put a cabinet over one half of two genuine air hockey tables. The front of the cabinet is a projection screen showing the other table and player. Inside the box is a special robot to catch the puck and relay its speed and direction to the other table. The other table's robot then fires a puck with that speed and direction.

The result is that the player sees their puck disappear into the box and then reappear on screen at the other end. The prototype is not perfect: there is a perceptible delay and the pucks tend to get stuck in the mechanism. But the system works well enough to create the illusion of one table with one game.

Like cats watching fish on a TV screen, the players kept looking behind the box to see where the pucks went. The most popular place to be wasn't playing, but in the box seeing how it all worked.

So I have to apologize to CSIRO people, for suggesting this was a useless activity. This was an outstanding PR success and promoted CSIRO's technical abilities. But it still was a waste of government money and showed a lack of judgment. Perhaps next time CSIRO will choose a project which is clever, but also of use, such as ICT systems to help with disaster relief.

Google SketchUp free drawing program

Google have released SketchUp, a free drawing program for Windows. Like Writely, SketchUp was a commercial product before being acquired by Google. But SketchUp is a lot more mature a product than Writely.

With SketchUp you could design a house. But it may be a bit more than the average dabbler needs, or can use.

Google also provide a "3d warehouse" of pre-prepared designs in SketchUp. So if I wanted to design an apartment block from shipping containers, I can download a shipping container from the warehouse, to start.

Credit cards are not the only non cash payment method

There is a common misconception that credit cards are the only way to make a non-cash payment and that as long as you pay your bill on time credit cards are free. Along with the myth that the average Australian family has four people in it, this may be increasing the cost of fuel in Australia.

The NRMA President was recently reported as opposing credit card fees on petrol purchases:
"Given the high price of petrol and the profits that are being made by oil companies to then charge motorists for filling up their tank, people are not going to carry the level of cash you need now to fill up their car ...".
Credit card companies charge the merchant for transactions. In Australia it has been common for the cost to be absorbed by the merchant, so that other purchasers subsidize credit card users.

Other non-cash payment methods, such as debit cards and EFTpos are cheaper than credit cards. I discovered this some years ago when preparing a report for the Australian Government on "Internet Payments for Government Agencies".

In a presentation I gave about the report there was a row of people in dark suits in at the front cheering me along. Afterwards they introduced themselves as being from the Reserve Bank of Australia. They were running campaign to make credit card fees more visible so consumers know what they are paying for.

The NRMA should be encouraging motorists to look at using other forms of payment besides credit cards. The NRMA should also declare its financial interest in credit cards and acknowledge that it refuses to accept any other form of payment some services.

Apart from costing more, credit cards make it easier to spend more. A better way to reduce the cost of fuel, is to use less of it. The average Australian family has fewer than four people in it. A small car designed to carry four people in comfort and safety will consume half the fuel of a large car. Assuming fuel was $1.40 a litre, the average family would save about $50 on each tank on of fuel, by switching to a small car.

Digital Content Industry Action Agenda

On Friday I attended a meeting at Old Parliament House in Canberra on the Australian Government's Digital Content Industry Action Agenda (DCIAA). This aims to grow the creative digital content industry; that is digital video games, digital TV and film content, web content, mobile phone content and the like.

The DCIAA Report, Unlocking the Potential, was released on 13 March 2006.

It occurs to me that what might be called the uncreative digital industries: old fashioned computing and telecommunications, may have a role. As an example a considerable amount of government research money goes into high speed networks, super computers and repositories for scientific applications. This much the same technology needed for digital video production and distribution. Grid technology, open source and digital repositories might of use.

As an example last week an ANU student completed a project for me on how to use the semantic web to provide a system for the museums of the South Pacific:
The final report and prototype software should be available shortly. This all started when I got a phone call in a barber's shop. ;-)

Simple English Wikipedia

The Wikipedia has a Simple English version using a limited word list. This idea appeals to me because I have difficulty writing ordinary English, even though it is my only language. Getting words out is a daily struggle. Simplified English might help me write better.

Also I see the difficulty readers have, especially during a presentation, when they are trying to read the words from a screen. Many of the readers have English as a second (or third) language. So simplified English should help when my words are machine translated to other languages, such as Chinese,
French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Spanish.

The Wikpedia suggests loading the Basic English institute's limited list of works into OOO's spelling dictionary. But there don't seem to be grammar tools for helping with simplified English.

The Wikipedia also has a set of pictures for the 200 "Picturable" words.This opens interesting possibilities for the translation of Basic English into pictograms. Unfortunately the pictures in the WikiPedia list are not suitable as pictograms.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Web based open source disaster management system for Indonesian earthquake

Over the last few days I have helped arrange for the deployment of a web based open source disaster management system for the May Indonesian earthquake. An Indonesian rescue group will use the system, with technical support from Indonesian IT university students and funding from the Australian Computer Society.

This came about when a few weeks ago Ken Taylor from CSIRO asked me if there was a project I might have for some students. They are at an Indonesian university studying IT. Most likely they will get work doing software for another country so needed practice in "offshoring". Also earning a little money for themselves and the university would be good.

Mount Merapi in Indonesia was threatening to erupt, so I suggested they could look at if Sahana was suitable for deployment. That way we might have a system ready when there was an eruption.

Sahana is open source software originally developed for the Asian tsunami but now generalized for any disaster. It is designed to help run refugee camps. I helped with some of the user interface, to make it more efficient and see if it would work on wireless devices. I gave talks in Sydney at an IT conference and to government webmasters in Canberra to see if it could be deployed in Australia for a bird flu pandemic, but Australians would be reluctant to use something which was free (and therefore suspect) and also was developed in the third world.

So I arranged for the ACS to fund the students to see if Sahana could be used for Indonesia. Rather than a traditional secret report, the students used a WiKi to write their report, allowing anyone to edit it.

When the report was just about finished I had them copy bits from the WiKi to a slide show and I presented that to the ACS Council's national meeting in Canberra. The same day I presented, the Indonesian earthquake struck.

The students had reported the system was suitable for use in an Indonesian disaster. We now had a disaster, so the obvious thing to do was deploy the system. The students already had the system running, the ACS could provide more support, but we needed a customer.

What few people realize is how difficult it is to contact anyone in authority during an emergency. It is even difficult to work out who is in authority, or for them to know they have authority. If you find someone, it is difficult to then suggest they do something they have not planned. During an emergency staff are busy carrying out their planned tasks, using rehearsed scenarios. They last thing they want to do is listen to long presentations from someone they have never heard of, about some computer system.

Under normal circumstances our next step would have been to demonstrate the system to government and non-government authorities so it could be included in their plans. I realised this would not work. What we needed was a credible aid group willing to try the system. But there was not time for formal approaches. At ANU we happened to have an Indonesian staff member, Dr Teddy Mantoro, who knew people in the Indonesia Whitewater Association. They had done some rescue work and had people already assisting with the emergency.

I was initially skeptical about this as it would not look good to be helping a recreational sporting group. But when I checked I found they were trained in rescue in Australia, by an Australian government accredited organization. So we got them to ask for help.

The plan which evolved was for the students to run the system and IWA use it. I had the students clone their existing web page to produce one to coordinate the project. Open Source and emergency experts around thew world are invited to help by editing the WiKi.

One problem I had to overcome was my reluctance to edit the WiKi. What I wanted to do was tell someone else to do it. But there isn't time to do that. The working approach therefore is to make a change and record why you did it.

Suggesting what should have been done, after a disaster is one thing, but deciding what to do during one is an altogether more difficult task. This is a very different process to commenting on 911, the Canberra bushfires or even help with military exercises, as I have done in the past.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Web Services Description Language (WSDL) Version 2.0

On Thursday Tony Rogers presented "The second coming of WSDL - what's new in WSDL 2.0", at ANU in Canberra. This was entertaining and informative. Web Services Description Language (WSDL) is what you use to describe web based interfaces. This is part of the very important, but very complex suite of W3C standards for e-commerce.

Tony perhaps spent too long explaining why WSDL 2 has taken so long to get to the stage it is at and not enough on what it will do. But the politics of standards making may come as a surprise to those who have not been involved in it. All going well WSDL 2 will be approved by the end of this year with usable implementations by the end of next year.

But not everyone agrees:
"To put it simply, these specifications are astoundingly bad. The comment period ended October 4, although looking at the comment list archive shows that comments were still being received, and processed, as recently as last week. According to W3C procedure, at this point the Director can send the documents back to the group, or he can allow them to move forward and ask for implementation information as the next step in becoming an official W3C Recommendation."
From WSDL 2: Just Say No by Rich Salz, November 17, 2004, OÂ’Reilly Media, Inc

Tony claimed that WSDL 2 is simpler than the previous version, which is a big claim to make. He suggests starting with the primer. But when I previously tried using the XML Schema Primer to explain it to ANU students, I got everyone confused, including myself.

There was some confusion when Tony mentioned the Apache "Woden project" for a WSDL 2.0, as "Woden" is also a region of Canberra.