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Category Archives: Info Tech

Making Sense of All That Data

Deep Data

Transforming Big Data Information into Deep Data Insights

Yesterday I posted a question to several of the groups I belong to on LinkedIn. It was related to several of the things I’m interested and involved in: Systems Thinking, Knowledge Management, and Decision Modeling. It was somewhat informed, as well, by an article appearing in the Huffington Post, where Otto Scharmer, a Senior Lecturer at MIT and founder of the Presencing Institute, talks about the need to make sense of the huge and growing amounts of data we have available to us. He argues the importance of turning from “Big” data, where we mainly look outward in our attempt to understand what it is telling us about markets and our external influence, to “Deep” data, where we begin looking inward to understand what it’s telling us about ourselves and our organizations and how we get things done.

The question I asked was designed to seek out capabilities and functionality that people would like to have, but that is currently unavailable. My interests include working with others to understand and provide for those needs, if possible. I thought I would present the question here as well, where it will remain a part of my online presence and, hopefully, might elicit some useful responses. Here it is:

With the growing proliferation and importance of data — a development at least one author and MIT Lecturer has suggested is moving us from the information technology era to the data technology era — what tools would you like to see become available for handling, understanding, and sharing the new types of information and knowledge this development will bring?

In other words, what would you need that you don’t have today? What types of technology do you think would offer you, your colleagues, and your organizations a greater ability to make use of data to bring about a transformation from primarily siloed, outward looking data to collaborative, inward looking data as well?

I would love to hear of any ideas you might have regarding the kinds of tools or apps you could use to better deal with data by turning it into useful information and knowledge . . . perhaps even a smidgen of understanding and wisdom.

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Twenty Years of Blogging – Congrats to Dave Winer

To Blog or Not to Blog

To Blog or Not to Blog

Dave Winer has played, mostly unbeknownst to me, a critical role in the development of blogging and other forms of online communication, including outliners and other types of online authoring and publishing software. I have been blogging for about ten years and I just recently came to realize his role. Actually, ever since I began following him on Facebook and experimenting with his numerous free offerings, e.g. Little Facebook Editor, which currently allows you to post to both Facebook and your WordPress blog, as well as edit and update both simultaneously, Little Card Editor, with which you can upload graphics (with added text) to both Facebook and Twitter, and Fargo, a quite useful outliner I’m using for a couple of things I’m working on.

Today, he posted in celebration of his twenty year anniversary of blogging. It’s an interesting explanation of what he’s been through (not exactly pretty) and what he thinks he’s learned from it. You can read it here. It’s really worth your while, especially if you’re a blogger and you sometimes wonder if it’s worth it.

I occasionally wonder why I’m doing this, as I’ve no intention of making any money off of my efforts but, rather, am merely looking for a way to express myself and, hopefully, reach a few people who like what I have to say. My biggest reason for blogging nowadays is to leave something of myself for my children, who may or may not find anything of value in it. I keep writing, though it’s sometimes a struggle – especially in terms of sharing some of my more personal thoughts, observations, and desires.

Anyway, this is my way of thanking Dave for what he’s done and recognizing his work in making all this possible. If you’re a blogger, you may not realize the role he’s played. Perhaps you should. At the very least, I always find it interesting to learn more about how we got to where we are. It’s frequently not terribly apparent unless you seek it out.

Mazel tov, Dave. Thanks for the ride. I, for one, am deeply appreciative.


All Hail The Beneficent, Ubiquitous Keyboard

There’s a little sort of game going on in Facebook lately. Someone is challenged to list three things they’re thankful for for seven days, at the same time tagging a friend each day (or something like that) to do the same. I haven’t been asked to do it, and I have no plans of doing it either, as it just seems too spread out and broad to do justice to the recognition of those things we might be thankful for. Nevertheless, it does give me pause and I have been thinking about what I would say should I choose one or two specific things for which I’m thankful. There is one seemingly mundane thing that keeps popping into my head. My ability to type.

I can’t imagine how different my world would be if I had to use what an old girlfriend of mine called the “search and destroy” method of typing. Most people use the more pastoral term “hunt and peck”, but she spent several tours with the USO in Vietnam and her life was colored by her exposure to that war, the military, and her involvement in the movement to end it. If I were hampered by that inability, my social presence and my ability to communicate would be virtually non-existent.

I was fortunate. In Junior High School I took a typing class; instead of what I haven’t the faintest, but I recall it seeming to be the most useful option at the time. As a result, I learned to touch type. Later on, when I was in Law School, I secured a position as a legal secretary for a sole practitioner who did a lot of contract and property damage work for several of the largest car rental agencies in the country. We were very busy and my workload was challenging enough that my speed increased. I’ve never been as prolific as the best, but I was up to a little over 80 wpm, with few if any errors. That’s not quite as fast as the average person can speak, but it’s a respectable clip.

IBM Memory Typewriter

The IBM Memory Typewriter

The job turned out to be a major turning point in my life, as I was introduced to the early stages of office computing and word processing. We ended up getting an IBM Memory Typewriter, the one built on the correcting Selectric, but with a dial providing memory for 50 separate pages. We moved up shortly to an Artec Display 2000, which used two 8″ floppies and had a scrolling display of approximately 30 characters. I don’t remember if it was LED or LCD, but the characters were red. We used it for pleadings, and wills and trusts.

Back to typing speed and how critical it is to communication in today’s world. I don’t really have to imagine what it would be like, because I had an experience with a colleague that pointed it out rather clearly, though it took months for me to recognize what was happening. I was working with the Director of our newly formed Program Management Office at what was then the Rocketdyne Power & Propulsion business unit of The Boeing Company. We were at almost opposite ends of the main office building in Canoga Park and I was upstairs in what was called The Annex. The distance between his office and my cubesickle was around 400 yards; not a huge distance, but it took time to walk back and forth. Plus it meant passing through the Executive Office area and there were always distractions.

I can’t recall the exact dates, but it was very early in our use of Instant Messenger; so early that I had to point out its value, as most of the older staff (which meant all of the Executives) perceived it as only a toy their kids used to communicate with each other. I kept sending IMs to this Director, but he never answered them, nor did he respond in anything resembling a timely manner to emails, so I was forced to walk to his office repeatedly during the day.

It wasn’t until a couple of months had passed that I happened to be sitting with him in his office and he was answering an email. Watching him type . . . ever so slowly and painfully . . . made it clear why he never responded to me. He had to hunt anew for each letter and, with his two index fingers, peck them out in a long, excruciatingly difficult session. He clearly hated it. I know I was cringing as I watched. I never sent him an IM after that day.

I’m thinking the ability to type is one of those essential tools we seldom think about — perhaps take for granted — without which our world would be far less rich and fulfilling. I can type this post, tweet, post to Facebook, engage in lengthy, spirited debates with dozens of widely dispersed people, and participate in a plethora of other forms of communication or collaboration relatively easily, all because of my ability to type quickly and accurately. I imagine this is true for almost all, if not all, of my friends and acquaintances.

For this I am deeply thankful.


Navigating Facebook

I joined Facebook on July 3, 2007, which means I’ve been a user for over seven years. It wasn’t terribly difficult to go through my Timeline and discover the date, but neither was it all that easy. I think I got lucky in finding the entry. Actually, since my retirement, I’ve been pretty much a daily user of Facebook. I’ve always been a little disappointed that it’s all but impossible to search your Newsfeed or your Timeline. This is especially egregious given that you can search in groups.

I’ve also been pissed off so many times because of how FB works, both in a browser and on my iPhone’s app, that I’ve found workarounds to deal with the way I get bounced around and have trouble returning to where I was when I decided to read something a little more in depth. So, the other day a friend of mine posted a description of what I had been feeling and I thought it was perfect. I told him so and I want to share what he said. Here ’tis:

I swear Facebook timeline is practice for a serious freaking bout of Alzheimer’s. You read something of interest that is cut off, so you click “… more” and read or watch something that makes you feel marginally more human and connected, you click back or close the pop-up and and they have redecorated, painted the walls (the lovely picture a friend took of a sunset or an odd shaped peanut) isn’t there but something sort of just as interesting is, and the dog you though you had (well the video of a puppy) is gone, and the thing your friend shared you wanted to like is also… POOF!

I swear Facebook is created by people who time travel and the time travel booths are sponsored by some sort of Alzheimer’s Anonymous reject group or something and want to inflict their version on the world as if that can be the new normal.

On the other side of the coin, there are lots of things you can do to organize yourself and the people and pages you follow and care about. One of the ways to do it is by building lists, or subscribing to lists others have built. One of the people who is, in my opinion, the most informed and engaged in using Facebook effectively, is Robert Scoble (aka Scobleizer). Here’s a blog post of his from nearly two years ago. He manages to stir up a lot of controversy, as evidenced by the comment from “mindctrl”, but also has a lot of really useful advice and analysis to offer. Not just for Facebook, either.

I’m still struggling with the “working out loud” thingy, but Facebook is definitely part of it. The main problem for me is that it also sucks me in and I use it to avoid doing the other things I want to do. That’s another story for other days. If anyone has thoughts about how Facebook works (or doesn’t) for you or how to make it more useful, I’d love to hear them. 


Tweaking Facebook

Facebook Like Icon

Use the Like, Luke.

I am — at least, I was — a Knowledge Management professional. It’s what I did for over a decade at Rocketdyne, starting when it was a business unit of The Boeing Company, up through my retirement from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a division of United Technologies. Pratt & Whitney paid for me to earn a Masters Degree in KM online from CSUN’s Tseng College. It’s such an exclusive degree they don’t offer it anymore. 🙂

I mention this because it affects how I share information, especially here on my blog. One of the tenets we tried to drill into people’s heads, and follow ourselves, was to avoid reinventing the wheel. That is, make it a habit to reuse information and knowledge that’s already been won at some cost to one or more individuals and the organization in which it was produced. This means, among other things, I am not interested in rewriting what others have written, while adding my own twist to it. This doesn’t apply when how I perceive an issue is substantially different than others, but it does when I’m sharing things I mostly agree with.

Yesterday and today brought me two great, and related, examples of things that need sharing and for which there’s little for me to do than announce them. The first I will actually place second, below, as it’s the subject of the second, which is a post by Dennis Howlett, which he published today in diginomica. What Dennis discusses is a Google Hangout Robert Scoble conducted, wherein he described what he has learned in thousands of hours of tweaking Facebook’s algorithms — primarily through his educated use of lists, likes, shares, etc.

Both Dennis and Robert are still far more embedded in the business world than I am and, rather than attempt an explanation through my eyes, I want to leave it to both of them to help you out. If you are using Facebook for your business or profession, or even if you just want to have a much better experience when using Facebook personally, I suggest reading the post and watching the video, which I am also including here. As Dennis points out, Robert is very generous with sharing his knowledge, something this KM pro really admires. You really should take advantage of it.


HuffPo Has Become a Steaming Pile of AOLbage.

I keep making the mistake of clicking links that lead to The Huffington Post. Big mistake. Their website takes so long to completely load – and is impossible to navigate while it’s doing so – I just can’t stand going there anymore. The only other sites that come close are fly-by-nights that essentially don’t load at all. The way HuffPo works is far more aggravating. The only way I could handle it would be to click on a link and walk away for a couple of minutes to be sure I can actually read something without it beginning all over again or bouncing around the page. ‪#‎HuffPoStinks‬


Simplicity is the Ultimate Sophistication

 

In an effort to improve my “working out loud” chops, I’m learning from a friend who has begun sharing the text of (not links to) his blog posts on Facebook and LinkedIn, as well as on the blog he’s had for a very long time. <Light Bulb!> This one’s a kind of reverse emulation, as this is something I shared on Facebook first.

Simplicity - Da VinciI have found an interesting difference of opinion on the subject of simplicity versus complexity, but it seems to hang on what dimension of endeavor we’re looking from. From an engineering design perspective – especially wrt products for the consumer market – there’s evidence complexity (think shiny objects) is actually a better seller than simplicity.

It seems to me, however, that da Vinci was looking a little deeper than marketing prospects and was more interested in the aesthetics of design . . . all kinds of design.

So . . . I’m thinking of it in terms of this software tool I am now representing, called World Modeler, which is used to model the elements required to make important and quite likely expensive organizational decisions to better . What we (Quantellia, LLC and I) can do is transform highly complex decision models (involving numerous decision levers, external factors, intermediate effects, interconnections, and even qualitative assumptions) to graphically (and quite simply) show how they will play out over time given certain values. The goal is to render the complex simple, not to simplify that which is complex.


What Is Decision Intelligence?

World Modeler Logo

World Modeler adds a Systems approach to Project Management

In my last post I took a stab at defining, and explaining, the concept of Decision Intelligence. I’m willing to bet you’re going to be hearing a lot about it in the not-too-distant future. So you don’t have to click back and forth, I’ll copy over what I wrote about it in that post:

This is the term Quantellia now uses to describe what it is we do. NB – The term is not “Decision Analytics”; there’s a reason for this. Perhaps it is best understood when one looks at a part of how decision modeling is accomplished. Part of the raw material available today for making decisions is what we call “big data”. There’s an awful lot of attention being paid to the field of predictive analytics, which uses big data as its raw material. We at Quantellia prefer the term predictive intelligence. This is because predictive analytics uses past performance (data) to project trends into the future. We like to think we take the concept a bit further.

While we believe analytics are useful and important, they lack the dimensions of human knowledge and understanding that can more completely predict how the past will play out in the future. A subtle distinction? Perhaps, but I find it a valuable one. Unless we’re talking about the future activity of a machine designed to perform a very limited set of instructions or actions, our activities involve human understanding, emotion, and interpretation. There are times when these attributes can dramatically change the course of an organizational effort, rendering previous decisions moot or, at best, only partially useful or correct.

By providing a method whereby human understanding, intuition, and wisdom can be incorporated into the decision model itself, we believe we can more intelligently predict the future. We are well aware there is no such thing as infallibility. However, we also know the more useful and actionable information and knowledge we have available to understand what has happened − and is likely to happen − the better our decisions will be.

Now, having had some time to think about it – it’s been over a month since that post -and having discussed it a bit with Quentellia’s Chief Scientist, Dr. Lorien Pratt (@LorienPratt), I’d like to add a little something to both the definition and the description of what World Modeler has to offer. Keep in mind, as with many things, perhaps even more so with something truly emergent and reasonably new to my experience, both my understanding and my ability to explain are evolving; developing structure and nuance as I learn more theory and encounter more examples of real-world situations.

I consider systems thinking, or the ability to see systems — and systems of systems — as the most effective way to understand what is happening within any one or more of those systems, as well as have a chance at affecting the outcomes of the ones designed to produce value and realize valuable results or consequences of their workings. The more elements of a system that can be modeled, the more likely you will be able to understand downstream effects of your decisions, and the more likely you are to see the unintended consequences of actions before you take them.

Here’s where Quantellia’s World Modeler™ excels as a decision modeling — and making — tool and enabler. Consider Predictive Analytics, the practice of extracting information from existing data sets in order to determine patterns and predict future outcomes and trends. PA usually returns fairly simple, pairwise relationships, e.g. these customers in this demographic, with this amount of revenue, etc. are likely/not likely to churn or devoting a certain amount of energy to customer retention is likely to affect/not affect customer churn.

World Modeler, on the other hand, allows you to create a highly complex systems model. This means you can look at numerous elements and their interrelationships to see how they work together, e.g. customer characteristics, customer retention efforts, likelihood to churn, total customers, revenues, and even business rules that might have to be taken into consideration if certain levels of activity are reached. Furthermore, when you don’t have data for one or more of these elements, you can use human expertise, the tacit knowledge of your employees or the group to fill in the gaps. When you have real data, if you later are able to gather it, you can then plug it into the model and continue going.

One more thing. World Model is a highly flexible, iterative navigation mechanism. It allows you to predict without complete or perfect knowledge, then pivot and change the model as new and/or different knowledge, information, and data are gathered or encountered. You can do this repeatedly over the course of months or years, whatever’s necessary to help you make the best decisions for achieving your desired outcomes. So success doesn’t depend on long-term predictions. Rather, it depends on navigation and alignment between the organizations systems, processes, and the humans that employ them.

Now . . . having learned all that, aren’t you interested in seeing how this tool works? You can get a free evaluation copy and all you’re giving up is a little contact information. There’s no obligation. Click on this the link to download a fully-functional two-week evaluation copy of World Modeler. Give her a Whirl(d)!


Seen a Spaceship Lately?

Have you ever watched the International Space Station pass by in orbit? I don’t know about you, but there’s something majestic, even magical for me just watching it fly overhead. A bright object moving at nearly 5 miles a second appears very fast, even at a distance of hundreds of miles away, and it is awe-inspiring to look up and know there are humans aboard. Several years ago I remember seeing the Station, a Soyuz capsule, and the Space Shuttle all pass overhead as they moved toward a rendezvous and docking. During that mission there were something like a dozen people silently flying by far above my house.

Since my retirement from Rocketdyne, and the cancellation of the Shuttle program, my interest has drifted away some. After all, there’s nothing quite like watching a large, powerful vehicle’s engines roar to life and lift it off the pad into orbit in less than ten minutes. The Station is almost invisible by those standards. It’s already up there and it’s passage is almost mundane. There’s no smoke and fire. It’s swift, but it’s silent.

Recently, I decided to add an app to my phone so I could find out when the Station was flying overhead. Not sure why my interest returned, but it did. The app I chose is called ISS Spotter. It’s free and has everything I need to observe the station. Here are the three views I use the most, though there are settings and a help screen available as well. The first one shows the Stations position and direction of travel (along the thick yellow line) from above and against a map of Earth. It also shows (the blue dot) your location; in this case, near Los Angeles. It has a couple of other bits of functionality, but they’re not relevant to this post.

Orbital map of ISS

Map shows current orbital position in real time

The second view shows upcoming passes over your location (which, btw, it determines automatically using your phone’s GPS, though you can also customize it on the setting page [not shown] if you know your coordinates [and you care]). I use the auto setting and it works just fine. It even adjusts if I’m somewhere else. There are other settings available for time prior to passage for alarms, minimum peak elevations, and others. There’s also a star rating to help you decide how much effort you may want to exert getting outside to view the pass. One star means a pass you might find meh, while three stars indicates even the Magi might be impressed. Note, the next one I’m planning on getting outside for has two stars. As you can see on this page, it will be at a visible altitude (at its highest) of 68° and will shine at a magnitude (visible on the third view, below) of -2.9.

ISS pass notification and alarms

Automatic listing of visible passes in next 7 days with settable alarms

The third view provides everything you need to know to actually find the station, even if you don’t make it out when it first appears. You can also see here that this pass will last a total of six minutes and thirty-eight seconds. Plenty of time to freeze your ass off if you’re anywhere affected by the Polar Vortex, which I’m not.

Compass view of Forecast Screen

Compass view provides direction, maximum elevation, magnitude, and more

I had forgotten, but I got an alarm this morning just in time to go out around 0630 and watch it pass. There were two things that struck me as I stood out in the backyard. When I first spotted it, the Station was well out over the Pacific and, minutes later, it was well over Nevada as I went back inside. In the approximately three minutes I spent observing, that orbiting outpost of humanity and science traveled nearly a thousand miles. The other thing, and it happens every time I observe it silently passing by overhead, was I could swear I was able to make out her warp nacelles.


Google Glass and ALS

It’s been said the eyes are windows to the soul, and most of us can recognize much from looking into another’s eyes. We can sometimes communicate intricate thoughts and feelings through our eyes. Imagine, though, they were your only window to the world; the only method by which you could communicate, with anyone. Further, what if you were in a position where it was nearly impossible for you to initiate a conversation and, therefore, unless you had a way to get someone’s attention, you had to wait for others to anticipate your needs? Worse yet, once anticipated, that other person would have to use a method requiring them to initiate nearly every aspect of the conversation.

This is precisely the situation for thousands of people suffering from ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), MS (Multiple Sclerosis), TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury), or any one of several other conditions that result in the inability to move and talk . . . or write . . . or use sign language.  All they can do is acknowledge your greetings or answer your questions with a wink, perhaps a nod. How would you communicate?

Recently, I had the opportunity to meet someone in that position. His name is Ismail Tsieprati, and he is one of the longest-surviving sufferers of ALS, having had the disease for thirty years. I first met Ismail’s caregiver and wife, Cheryl, at a local Chamber of Commerce networking breakfast. She had recently left a long-time position in corporate training and was looking to establish a web-based business as a training consultant. She asked if I could help her promote her business through social media, and also suggested she help turn some presentations I had done into webinars. I agreed, and we worked together for a short while. As life would have it, before we could finish she was offered a full-time position in corporate training, and I was coming to the painful realization I had been chasing a pot devoid of gold.

We trekked off on our separate trails, as casual business relationships often do, but we remained in occasional contact, through Facebook and comments Cheryl would make in response to one of my sporadic blog posts. One of the several projects I had been working on was editing and proofreading a book – Age of Context – authored by Shel Israel, a longtime author and tech journalist, and Robert Scoble, an authority on bleeding-edge technology and startups.

Toward the end of the project, I was given the opportunity to invite a number of friends to read an early, limited release of the book. In exchange, I asked them to provide an honest review on Amazon.com. Since Cheryl had been one of the people to occasionally comment on my blog, I thought of asking her to read and review the book. She was an excellent prospect because she is not a techie and readily admits to being somewhat befuddled with technology.

It turned out to be a good choice, in more ways than one. Cheryl was one of the few people, of the many to whom I sent a link to the early release, who took the time to write a review—a thoughtful, useful review at that—not merely a quick stab at providing an obligatory yay or nay. She also was hit between the eyes with some of the stuff she read about. Particularly relevant to her was Google Glass. Shel and Robert had devoted an entire chapter to it, and there were numerous references as well throughout the book. I’ll let her explain, in this excerpt from a chapter of the book about their 30-year journey with ALS she and Ismail are working on:

“The greatest fear for people living with ALS is there will be a day when they become “locked in” – so completely paralyzed in the late stages of the disease that even the simplest of muscle movements have been stolen from them and they will be unable to communicate in any way with the outside world.  Those who are “locked in” survive in complete isolation.  They can see and hear everything around them, comprehend everything, think complex thoughts, experience joy, sorrow, and pain, and yearn to communicate with their loved ones and caregivers – to express their feelings, their discomfort, and their desires, but they are hopelessly trapped inside their bodies with no way of communicating with anyone.  For Ismail and me, as well as for others with ALS and their families, overcoming communication barriers and fighting off the “locked in” syndrome is a lifelong battle; an absolutely essential one.  After all, Ismail loves to talk, and he has a lot to say.  He’s not going to let ALS or anything else shut him up!”

                            – Tears, Laughs, and Triumphs: A Thirty-Year Journey with ALS *

* Since this article was first posted, Ismail and Cheryl’s book as been published. It’s final title is “One Blink at a Time.” It can be purchased at Amazon, here.

What struck Cheryl was the knowledge that Glass could recognize eye movement. She was very excited about the possibility of making eyeglasses with eye gaze technology available to Ismail and people in similar situations. Current eye gaze augmentative communication technology involves much larger and more complex systems, which require careful placement and frequent adjustment. Cheryl wanted to talk about it, and I wanted to know more. We met for coffee and, after a bit of discussion, I told her I’d like to write about their situation. We decided I should meet Ismail to better understand his world and I was invited to their home.

Ismail and Stephen Hawking - August 14, 1992

Ismail Tsieprati with Stephen Hawking, Peninsula Hotel, Beverly Hills, California, August 14, 1992
Photo by Lynn Klein

I had mixed emotions about the upcoming meeting. I was to meet Ismail for the very first time, and I was somewhat nervous about the prospect. I had never met someone with ALS, and mostly knew about it through the story of baseball legend Lou Gehrig and one of my favorite theoretical physicists, Steven Hawking.

Cheryl had invited me to lunch. After meeting Ismail and talking to him and Cheryl about this post, I sat down at the dining room table while Cheryl went into the kitchen briefly to dish up the meal and bring it out for us to enjoy. In doing so, she left me sitting alone with Ismail. The silence was deafening. I felt extremely uncomfortable, as I was struggling with how to approach this unique (for me) situation. I had never communicated in this fashion before and it was awkward.

I hadn’t learned the process Ismail and his caregivers use, which involves what they call a “spelling chart”. Ismail can initiate communication in only two limited ways. One is by grinding his teeth, which ensures getting Cheryl’s or his other caregiver’s attention, provided they’re within earshot. The other method is to modulate his breathing so as to trip the alarm on his ventilator. This works at a greater distance than tooth grinding, but likely is more stressful on Ismail.

Once Ismail has someone’s attention, he communicates by using his spelling chart. Everyone who communicates directly with Ismail has memorized this chart, which appears below. Since the chart is in everyone’s head, there is nothing to carry around, set up, or adjust. It’s a quite simple and efficient system, but it’s time consuming and requires patience. This is how it works: The alphabet is divided up into six rows.  Row number 1 is “A-B-C-D,” row number 2 is “E-F-G-H,” and so on. The person talking to Ismail calls out the number of each row of letters until Ismail blinks to select the number of the line containing the letter he wants to use. The person then calls out each letter in the selected row, until Ismail blinks again to select the letter he wants. The person then starts all over again, calling out numbers of rows, then numbers or letters, as Ismail builds words, then sentences, then paragraphs. If Ismail selects number 7, he’s telling the person it is the end of a word or a paragraph.  If he selects number 8, he wants to give the person a number or a date. People can also ask him “yes” and “no” questions. One blink means “yes,” and two blinks mean “no.”

Spelling Chart used for communication

Spelling Chart used by Ismail and his caregivers for communicating.

There are other methods of communication available to people who cannot speak or use their hands. For example, years ago Ismail wrote a screenplay by using an infrared switch attached to his glasses that he operated by blinking his eye.  The switch triggered the selection of letters and numbers on an alphabet grid displayed on a computer monitor. The design of the chart was similar to the one Ismail and his caregivers use today.  Scanning technology highlighted letters one at a time to allow the user to select one. The program had word prediction, which made sentence-building faster, and a voice synthesizer that could speak words he typed or had programmed into the system.  The software program and voice synthesizer were similar to those used by Stephen Hawking.

Since Ismail’s eye blink may eventually grow too weak to be a reliable method of communication, eye gaze is the technology that provides hope for the future for him and others like him.  He has been practicing with an eye gaze system that is a communication device, speech generating device, Windows XP computer, and environmental control unit, all in one. The system allows Ismail to select letters and numbers by gazing at them for a programmable pre-set number of seconds. He can also select icons or images that trigger a voice synthesizer to speak words and sentences for him. The system also has the capability of accessing Windows and the worldwide web. But Cheryl says that Ismail becomes tired after practicing with this system for only a few minutes and grows frustrated trying to navigate around its screens.  It takes time to set up the equipment and reposition it properly every time he moves from one place to another, so the device is bulky and time-consuming to use except for those times he’s sitting in one place.  Although it’s possible to attach the unit to his wheelchair with a special bracket, the machine still needs to be moved out of the way during transfers, then readjusted again.

Enter Glass. What if it had the same total eye-gaze control capabilities that Ismail’s bulkier, less user-friendly equipment has? What if a complex communication, web-surfing, environmental control system could be worn in a pair of eyeglasses and operated by the movement and gaze of an eye? Since Glass contains a built-in display, there would no longer be a need for the much bulkier external devices that are currently used.

“My eye gaze equipment can be slow and tiring,” Ismail says.   “It is difficult and time-consuming to use. I hope there will come a day when technology will improve for many people like me who are paralyzed but want to continue to talk to the world. I hope that day comes soon.”

The question now is not if, but when. It’s also a question of priorities, I suppose. I’m not sure if Glass has the capabilities Ismail and others require, but it surely won’t be long before they’re realized. The other question is, are there developers who have both the skills and the desire to create such an app. Also, Glass is not the only device that can provide the necessary functionality. In addition to wearables like Glass, there are companies working on interpreting brain waves. Emotiv is one of them and they are working on a device called Epoc that currently provides limited capability. Right now, they are concentrating on game playing and some forms of gross manipulation, but it shouldn’t be long before their system (and others like them) become more sophisticated. They are also licensing an SDK for people who wish to write their own systems.

If you have any interest in this kind of thing, there are some golden opportunities out there. Perhaps there isn’t a fortune to be made, but the possibilities of helping tens of thousands of people live more productive and engaged lives despite severe disability are immense and will be, I have no doubt, enormously satisfying.


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