Tech, Bureaucracy, and the Humans

In my sojourns, I came across someone who had worked with Social Services in Siparia, Trinidad and Tobago, and took the opportunity to hear some of their experiences. In my world, I connect with people of all types in society, and there is much to be learned from that.

He tells me an old woman made him cry. It’s a very human story, where the children abandoned the mother, but the meat for this post is in the beginning of the story, where he lays the context:

“Every year pensioners have to come in and sign a document to show that they’re not dead.”, he said.

I looked at him, appreciating what he said and how he said it – how silly it is. I smiled.

“No, really, that’s the only reason that these people have to come in. To show that they’re not dead.”

I got it the first time, which he wasn’t used to, but here’s why that is something I had to smile at and why he felt he needed to repeat himself: Within the last decade, births and deaths – it’s buried in some Ministry somewhere, I don’t really care which – became computerized, and they’ve been busy updating birth certificates to the point where the populace is a bit tired of having to go get an updated document from Births and Deaths.

So that information exists in computer readable form in one tendril of the vast bureaucracy. Yet, somehow, it is not connected to the pensioner’s information. Now, people do have to go in and sign because others had been collecting pensions for the dead, so now someone has to wander in and prove that they are still alive. “I’m here! I’m breathing! Here’s my signature!”

But the data could be connected. It could allow the pensioners to stay home, and if there are questions, why not go to them? Having recently dealt with the death of someone close to me who was a pensioner and having seen what her son went through, it seems peculiar that we need to torture the old and the weak to prove that they still get a payment deposited to their account. There are so many ways to deal with that.

It’s these little things that technology, properly done, could help with. It’s these little things that technology doesn’t in Trinidad and Tobago.

Maybe privatization is the way to go to make things more human, but then with corruption and poor analyses of what actually exists, who is to say that it would get done? Therein lies the rub.

Given the opportunity, I’m sure that people could fix that. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see silly little things like that fixed. Pensioners are already on the downhill slope, why subject them to a gauntlet of 1,000 papercuts?

A Few Thoughts on the techAgri Expo 2017

Given my return to Trinidad and Tobago, which my last post gave some context to, and the fact that I own agricultural land in Trinidad and Tobago, I went to the UWI techAgri Expo armed with my decades of experience as a software engineer, years of experience dealing with land, and my own trials and tribulations at growing things not just on my land, but over the years. I had good counsel on the latter from established farmers in Trinidad and Tobago, but I am not an expert.

I purposefully left my camera behind. People treat you differently when you have a camera, and I wasn’t going as some sort of media person or pretending to be. I was going for information. I didn’t need a camera for that.

Generally, I thought it was worthwhile. One person I know remarked that it was more like a bazaar in that people were selling things – I see that as a factor of any expo to get foot traffic. Another criticism is that the students didn’t have all the answers to the questions asked, but a quick analysis of that criticism reveals an unrealistic expectation in the critic. They are students, after all. Someone said that it could have been held inside, but then, what of all the plants? So, personally, I dismissed a lot of the criticisms.

The farming equipment was plainly visible. Children packed into the tractors for photo opportunities, and every now and then people would inquire about prices. Plants galore – the savanna was alive with plants, and there were many people leaving with plants.

I bumped into the tent where they had information on the apps – things like Maps.tt I would find an immediate benefit from, and their land suitability app looks promising. The AgriDiagnose Mobile App also looked very useful. The data from NAMDEVCO could be useful, but in it’s present forms it’s not too useful for people planning to do things – more on that later. A brief chat with Dr. Bernard showed we knew some of the same people.

Moving on, I came across rabbits at the UWI Faculty of Food and Agriculture University Field Station – dealing with academia must be a preparation for long German – and I saw rabbits and agouti. There were signs about entrepreneurship behind these creatures imprisoned in their cages, so I asked around about the market for them. They had no idea. They had no idea where to find such information. Well, they were students, so no need to be hard on them.

Continuing my walk, I had some interesting conversations with some international folk, a few criticisms from staff about getting interdepartmental assistance for some things (a few people knew me and the criticisms were more specific, but I know the unpleasant frustration of academic silos), and I came across a business that was marketing rabbit meat.

Well, here we are. They’ll have answers. So I spoke with them about the market for rabbit meat and rabbits in general, and as expected, it wasn’t exactly a high demand market. It’s not as if I see ‘rabbit roti’ on the roti shop walls. It’s more of an exotic market, and more for pets than pots. Completely understandable and expected, so I thanked the lady for her candor and moved on.

The Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) was interesting, though I’m not sure that it was all accurate. They advertise great interest rates for agricultural and aquaculture projects, but when I spoke about the specifics of things I was looking at doing, I asked about whether I should split some land off for collateral and repeatedly told I didn’t need to do that. That seems peculiar. Established farmers I know have criticized the ADB in that while their interest rates seem low, with all the fees one ends up paying, it’s effectively the same as banks with higher advertised interest rates. An after discussion with someone who knows more about interests rates revealed the 3-5% was effectively around 8-9%, but that advertised bank rates at 8% were closer to 14% in reality.

So, the ADB didn’t really sell me on anything in the end.
I was finding holes. Opportunities. Flaws in the bureaucracy, as there always are and always will be.

The rest of the expo was as informative to me on aquaculture, agriculture, potential markets.

Try Cafe Vega. They had a stall. I met Dr. Floyd Homer, and we talked about beans and all sorts of things. How could I pass up a cup of local coffee? Good stuff.

The NAMDEVCO Data

The thing that jumped out at me most was market data.  What’s published is Open Data – it’s one of the founding principles, it seems, but it’s not as open as you would think. If you take a look at the data available from NAMDEVCO, it gives you averages of monthly data over the years (starting in December 2016), but it doesn’t show you volatility. It is lacking, and part of that may be that NAMDEVCO simply wasn’t designed for it – or the people who want to do it are getting crushed by the gears of bureaucracy (been there, done that), or it simply hasn’t entered into people’s minds.

But I’ve spoken to farmers. One successful farmer revealed his success one time with cabbage, being able to buy a car for cash after reaping one cabbage crop. That’s an outlier. So there is volatility in these markets that farmers have to be able to plan for. Granted, the app that shows the immediate prices is good, but if you’re getting into a market, you want more data. It is there at the link, but it has to be hand typed in from the images in the monthly PDFs to get what you want… when I tried the contact link on their website, I was greeted by a configuration error. So I can’t really tell them about the error, now can I? Try it. Maybe they’ll fix it. Let me know.

In all, I think my only real criticism of the techAgri expo is that I wish it were more helpful to me – but that’s not so much on them. I’m a demanding person when it comes to information, and I know how to deal with Big Data – something lacking around Trinidad and Tobago, really – and my criticism is more of an identification of opportunities for myself and others. There is further analysis that can be done, and there are opportunities that you can find… if you have the gift of seeing what doesn’t exist yet.

Eschewing the Networks Of Noise

Social Media Signals

On one side is the gigantic internet, a miracle of fine articulation, which turns out the tabloid newspaper: on the other side are the contents of the tabloid itself, symbolically recording the most crude and elementary states of emotion.

I wish that I had written that but I didn’t. I simply switched ‘printing press’ with ‘Internet’ on a quote of Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilization, 1934).

Someone mentioned that they would add me to some Whatsapp group this morning, but I didn’t have a smart phone – and they did so in a way that hinted at me being some stick-in-the-mud. I have no doubt that they see me as such, but as I responded, “If it weren’t for all the shit being posted, I might bother with it.”

“Yadda yadda yadda”

Case in point. Nothing of worth but implicitly saying, “I don’t care what you think”.

There’s only one suitable response to that, and they got it.

The signal to noise ratio of networks all over bugs me. I suppose part of that is the way that I grew up when minutes on a landline were a cost and thus one got the most value that one could. I suppose that my time in the military reinforced that, where you didn’t waste time in communication – and in dealing with ambulances from the Emergency Department in a Naval Hospital, where communication had to be clear, concise, and devoid of noise. I suppose it was reinforced even more with the SOAP notes that we wrote – quickly, accurately, no noise, anticipating what the reader would be looking for and making those things clear so that a month later you wouldn’t be asked questions about it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a value to ‘noise’, I won’t disagree, but there is no value when it crosses a certain threshold. This threshold varies between people, and I’ll admit that I have a lower threshold than most that has increased with age.

A perfect example was using Whatsapp group to organize a Hindu funeral. It worked out fairly well despite only fragments of information being shared, and I used my own old smartphone on a wireless network to participate. Towards the end, though, it became a place where people were playing. Jokes inappropriate for a funeral were being posted, and other nonsense that didn’t pertain to the subject of the group were being posted.

Others on Whatsapp were interrupting my day with ancient memes I’d already seen on Facebook and Twitter. They meant well, but to me, what was it? Noise.

During all of this time, I was thinking of getting a smartphone here in Trinidad and Tobago – a period of months, and maybe soon enough I will, but right now I don’t want one because I don’t want to pay more to get less through both phone and service.

Am I the only one that feels this way? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care right now. I see children walking around with smartphones, and when I see that I wonder who is teaching them how to communicate clearly and concisely? If 20 and 30 somethings – much less 40 year olds and upward – can’t communicate clearly, do we wonder at the confusion that has become social media – a place of poorly communicated emotion, of poorly communicated ideas?

Society, with all the wonders of technology so well dressed in the palms of their collective hands, seems to be more interested in communicating the tabloid rather than the textbook, and while the tabloid most certainly has it’s place, we need more textbook in my opinion.

After all, competing with it has infected ‘news’ media…

The TechStew

WhirlpoolI’ve had some time away from working on Other People’s Problems (OPP) and I’ve spent it reading and studying things to see what comes next. It’s an interesting exercise in futility because of one main thing that I call TechStew.

Technology is, in engineering speak, an open system. Many of the business concepts around technology assume it’s a closed system, yet the very fact that they involve businesses demonstrates how open a system technology itself is. It’s the stew of exponentially increasing concept combinations (The Medici Effect) that don’t just come from technology.

During my lifetime, the main driver of technology has been business – and that is not likely to change. Every successful technology is sustainable and, in our world, that means having a market to build an economy around it. Students of Software Engineering would see a parallel in the software development life cycle, where the life cycle ends when the cost of maintenance exceeds the value – and value today is measured in money. That’s unlikely to change in the near future either, regardless of how many Star Trek episodes you convince everyone to watch.

Actual innovation, though, doesn’t come from money. It comes from ideas. And actual innovation doesn’t require as much money as people think, but making the innovation sustainable through a market does.

Innovation requires leveraging the tech stew and adding to it from externalities to create new things. Making money off of innovation requires resources. These two things are often confused as the same by passionate and frustrated people, but the distinction exists.

Since markets play a role, we get into sociology and economics to find what people value and what they don’t (so it can be fixed).

And the TechStew grows and grows, even as older systems form the new skeleton that limits what can be done within the market. Backward compatibility. What people are used to.

Reflect. Refract Toward The Future

Wall-E looking At The StarsI got it all wrong.

This is not to say that I have regret, or that I’m disillusioned. It’s more of the realization that I have suffered an illusion, and while I do not understand yet how I became illusioned, I understand that I have been.

It started as a child, really. I grew up the son of an engineer, and understanding how things worked was simply a way of living. It’s not a bad way to live. Later on, the personal computer revolution started and despite then living in a developing nation, PCs became my surfboard – and writing code became a primal need. I happened to be good at it.

The early 80s were a happening time in tech. It was a true revolution; the power of a computer in the hands of individuals and small businesses was unheard of. Given that we didn’t have the Internet and networks were just beginning, the world changed as rapidly as that would allow. The teenage version of me thought that it would be a great way to add value to the world. To make things that would make the world a better place, like the advertising promised… but I was too young to understand that one shouldn’t believe the advertising.

At one point, I began to understand that. And I began to understand that despite my best intentions, I wasn’t actually doing anything of worth. You, reader, may believe you are doing something of worth. I will tell you that maybe you are now, but it will likely not last – the churning evolution of technology swallows things, digests them and incorporates them into other parts – and you never see those things again. And it does so with people, too. Sure, you have the success stories.

In the end, though, you look back on the things you’ve played with and worked on decades later, nostalgically, and realize that they are gone. You made companies money for your living expenses, sold your abilities to the highest bidders, and one morning you wake up and realize that coding is the next blue collar job. There’s nothing wrong with that. But code has a way of changing, being tossed out or simply sitting somewhere on a server as technology rolls by.

I recall at job interviews over the past 10 years being asked about things I wrote, as if I single-handedly wrote anything or maintained anything in the last 10 years other than websites – and websites built disappear over time not through fault of the coders, but through faults of the businesses. And the same happens with the less visible code. Companies get bought out and their technology is either adapted, or tossed out (even if it’s better).

What I got wrong in all of this is not what I did but why I did it. This idea of generating actual value instead of making money is antiquated in this world, and perhaps the best reason for that is the people running things believe that money is the value and that everything else is transient.

Had I known that 3.5 decades ago, my approach on many things would have been different. I joke about being raised wrong, and there was a point when I wistfully pointed out that things used to be built to last  – but the world doesn’t want that. The constant evolution of everything requires, in this world, the financial backbone to do so. No technology survives without it’s own economy, and in that it is a slave to those with the disposable income to pay – not the masses whose lives could be improved by it. The cognitive dissonance of Silicon Valley in this regard, as well as others, leads a path to those who wish to follow – and that path is one of the financial backbone, of bankruptcies and failures unmentioned in the marketing brochures.

Tech will continue to change the world, but the socioeconomic disparity is playing itself out in democracies around the world. Interesting times.

 

 

Apples and Orangutans.

There was a discussion on Facebook about whether Apple products were worthy of the Enterprise, and there was some CTO of some company that processes data (just like everyone else) who put her title in front of her arguments – a nasty habit that diminishes a point – saying that Apple products are.

When it comes to processing and ability, Apple products are often superior to Windows products – but typically not within the same price range, so it’s an odd comparison of Apples and… well, you get the drift. But ability of a single machine wasn’t at issue, it was whether it could work within the Enterprise. At this time, I contend that Apple isn’t Enterprise-friendly because it’s not as cost effective – and let’s be serious, that’s not the market that Apple has really been going after. Yet? Historically, it never has.

But in this discussion, I was trying to tease out the importance of cost effectiveness and cross-compatibility between Apples and other machines on a network by pointing out that the developing world simply can’t afford the Apple-esque thought of the Enterprise, and that in turn got us into the Lowest Common Denominator (LCD)’discussion’ – where our opinions were drastically different. Her contention was not to worry about the LCD, she doesn’t care about them. Well, really, of course she doesn’t because the company she worked for at the time (and maybe now) doesn’t deal with users, and it hordes the processing. That’s their business model. But she couldn’t seem to make that distinction.

That’s a problem for the Enterprise, more so than the cost of Apples. The Enterprise, whether companies like it or not, extends beyond their infrastructure to other infrastructures – which are largely Windows and Linux hybrids. Why? Cost. And where does cost come to be a factor?

Oh. The Enterprise and the Developing world. And – excuse me, I need to twist this into a ending you didn’t expect  – it’s really about mobile devices (thin clients) and access to data.

Natural Language Processing, Health Records and the Developing World.

Case Investigation Team

The Veterans Administration will be using Natural Language Processing (NLP) for their medical records. It can be a powerful tool for searching for trends and getting the right people to the right treatments in a timely manner. That’s a gross oversimplification.

I know a bit about medical records1. I also happen to know quite a bit about Natural Language Processing, since I’ve worked with it in the context of documentation management.

And, as it happens, I know a bit about the developing world – the Caribbean and Latin America. And I know a bit about the hospitals in the region, where hand written records are kept, but lack the rigor and discipline necessary for them to truly be useful. I recently looked at the medical record of someone in Trinidad and Tobago, if you could call it that, since I found it odd that the Doctors and Nurses didn’t seem to communicate not only with each other but their own subgroups. I saw why.

I know of one doctor who keeps patient records in Microsoft Word documents – a step in the right direction.

There is an opportunity here for the developing world in general, but it’s a technology leap that must be undertaken with the discipline of good medical records in the first place. These delapidated medical systems, despite new buildings, need to have medical records that enable good care in the first place.

There’s no reason that medical care in the developing world should suffer; it can be done much more cheaply than in the developed world and with the advancements such as NLP already being implemented, it’s vacuous to build shiny buildings when the discipline of the medical records themselves should be paramount.

But then, maybe implementing electronic medical records properly would be a good start to building that discipline. 

1Medical Records have interested me from my days as a U.S. Navy Corpsman, where we were assiduous about medical records – Doctor’s orders, nursing SOAP notes, lab results – all had their place within a folder. It was just on the very edge of the medical databases that the U.S. Navy rolled out. When I was at my first USMC command, myself and other corpsmen’s first job was  to get the medical records ready enough to allow us to deploy – and it was an onerous task, with those who had gone before not having taken the records as seriously as they should. Later, I would work with a Reserve USMC unit at Floyd Bennet Field where I would be commended for my database work as related to their medical records.