Sunday, December 02, 2007

Demonstrators for the digital society

What started as an attempt to go beyond alumni reunions led to an interesting scenario of the digital society. On the 28th of November 2007 the alumni association of my high school in Mumbai, India handed over 100 cashless healthcards to teaching and non-teaching staff and ex-teachers (See newspaper coverage here - PS! Vikram and Gerry are the ones who have done all the heavy lifting).

There are a many digital societal elements to this "experiment"
  • technology in the use of open source technology (Drupal) to collaborate, online payments (Paypal) to raise funds and support transparency in fundraising
  • business models for the development of an insurance product for healthcare with a unique model for users, healthcare providers, insurers and financiers
  • organisation design in redesigning the workings of the managing committee of the alumni association to be able to execute such a project, organisational flexibility for the school administration
However, this just the tip of the iceberg of challenges and opportunities -- an attempt to demonstrate that a grassroots driven idea to deliver something of value for many stakeholders can be done and hopefully raise the discussion of how citizens can participate in shaping its society.

For practical reasons, some elements have been out of scope -- elements that are critical for scaling up such ideas and sustaining them. This involves the creation of institutions and solutions that are of a foundational nature. Institutions that are industry-led but not driven by commercial interests, institutions that not only shape legislation but also have the authority to enforce it. The welfare models of the Nordics or Canada can be a source of inspiration but cannot be copy-pasted, they must be designed to suit the diversity, population size, existing infrastructure and maturity of existing institutions.

With the impending rush of baby-boomer retirement (eldrebølge) this is not just a welfare issue, there are some great business opportunities. The challenges are numerous everything from shaping new business models to establishing trust-institutions to harnessing the potential of personal health devices and body sensor network technology that will hit the market.

Now if the Healthcare, Insurance and Telecom providers could pool their resources to drive simple standards for interoperability ... then maybe the Tim Berners-Lee's vision of the semantic web could come to life in a very practical application that affects ordinary people. To my mind this form of catalyst activity is what government should focus on even more.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

And here is one more example of the "Digital Society in Practice". My collegaue Øyvind Strømme pointed me to Thomas Friedman's article in the NYTimes. Very inspiring story of social responsibility by the Byrraju Foundation.

At first looks, one is tempted to think that the Societal Digital Infrastructure (SDI) is missing, but it is there; evidently not with the reliability, stability and other -ilities needed for industrialised usage (which is Friedman's point). The design is in place and this looks like a good case for highlighting the relevance of an SDI. I do not think Byrraju are or should be overly concerned about the lack of infrastructure, that will come if one focuses on shaping and running the solution.

There are some interesting scenarios that can play out in taking this to the next level. The one that fascinates me is, EQ meets IQ (more than ET meets IT), where emotions and a desire "to give back" meets intellect, opening for all sorts of life-altering but yet practical solutions. Such solutions will be the proverbial snowballs, that drive the creation of an SDI and fuels the innovation process. As Internet technologies make it possible for expatriates to want to "give back" in more specific ways, we will see some interesting forms of project delivery.

Climate, large distances and a scarce population forced the discipline of Telemedicine to develop and grow in Norway years ago. Telemedicine is a full-fledged informatics discipline (see Norwegian center of Telemedicine) addressing some tough challenges in technology, medicine, health management, sociology etc. Combining this knowledge with knowledge from the maturing solar technology solutions, mobile technologies and video-conferencing technologies can make for some interesting products. Last December, I blogged along similar lines and I thought I was too futuristic; how wrong I was! -- the pace of development is blistering.

So, the democratizational effects of the Internet and IT in general, are shaping interesting societal models that will challenge traditional forms of governance and will increase the collaboration between public sector, the volunteer/NGO sector and the private sector.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

My recent posts have talked about technology and solutions and less about the Digital Society. Partly due to myopia (its an occupational hazard of working with solution planning) but also deliberately, to show examples of what can form building blocks for the foundation of a digital society. However, today I am suddenly made aware of a live example that can serve as a use case for the Societal Digital Infrastructure (see my other blogposts with this tag).

The TVaksjon is an annual national fund raising event hosted by NRK - the Norwegian state television. An event that, for one day, brings people together to support an organisation that works towards a focused cause. The organisation and cause are carefully chosen to balance multiple perspectives. This year the funds go to UNICEF Norge and the topic is Together for children aimed at helping children face the challenges of HIV and AIDS. This event is a national dugnad has many interesting elements like the use of auctioning technology, use of crowdsourcing techniques to mobilize volunteers nationwide or the use of web technology that helps businesses to leverage their social involvement and profile their products.

For such an initiative to work at this depth of credibility and involvement requires a hidden foundation. A foundation built on a combination of societal practices, social behaviours, laws and governance and enforced and enabled by technology. It is a combination of these that form the foundation of a digital society -- Societal Digital Infrastructure.

It is very likely that similar campaigns exist in other countries or in different communities like this scheme DonorsChoose. Please drop me a note/comment if you have other examples.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

In what I would characterise a landmark event for communications, Microsoft and Norwegian telco Telenor teamed to launch the VoIP platform in Oslo today (Norwegian). Demonstrating the merger of software-powered telephony with device/network powered telephony I sensed a major shift -- blurring the lines between traditional communication and collaboration --but also witnessing another example of the consumerisation of IT (i.e. introducing products from the consumer market, into the enterprise).

The two case-study presentations were also impressive; but then Microsoft are very good at recruiting early adopters to demonstrate production-grade implementations. The case studies were from Norway's largest company StatoilHydro (collaboration between land and sea/rig) and one of Northern Europe's most advanced hospitals St. Olav in Trondheim (the VoIP platform as the foundation for communication).

Again, Microsoft showed their willingness to develop hardware, even though it may only be to demonstrate the power of the software platform. The Roundtable device is a simple device with a USB-connected 360-degree camera with voice-detection allowing for automatically zooming to the speaker. The quality of the picture could have been better but anyway, it brings an audio/video dimension to VoIP in the enterprise. And in these climate-conscious days, it could help reduce travel.

Microsoft's VoIP platform (or Unified Communications as it is called) seems poised to be the "web operating system" for developing large scale mobile applications with deep integration of communication and presence. Judging by the partners present and those announced, it looks like a new wave of solutions from ISVs. The video-conferencing sector (like Tandberg) will get a boost from this launch even though I think it is difficult to say if the impact will be positve (i.e. people develop a sense for video conferencing and look for better solutions) or negative (i.e. put off buying expensive video-conferencing equipment).

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Following the announcement of this years Nobel Peace Prize; Renny had an interesting post here - Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore or Vint Cerf? I like the line of thinking and would like to extend this nomination for 2008 to also include Robert Kahn (Cerf's co-inventor) and 3 others:

(1) Sir Tim Berners-Lee -- for taking the TCP/IP and layering a powerful "human interface" on it with the sole purpose of sharing information and driving the rapid evolution we experience. But what I think is even more noble (no pun intendend) is his choice to make his invention open and free -- notable if one considers the potential for commercial gain through intellectual property rights. I think CERN his employer at the time, also deserves credit.

(2) Linus Torvalds for almost single-handedly making Open Source a model, not just for software technology innovation, but for inspiring and driving societal innovation and grass-roots development.

(3) Dr Nicholas Negroponte for his $100 computer initiative -- also known as the One Laptop Per Child project. The success of such an initiative is crucial for bridging the digital divide and helping education become a fundamental human right. The Give 1 Get 1 move could open the floodgates.

What appeals is the vision, selflessness and humanness of these individuals in creating an infrastructure needed for a grass-roots knowledge ecosystem that the world needs. These individuals also represent courage and strength in taking on the commercial giants on their own turf -- and driving change. Like Dr Negroponte convincing Intel to collaborate on the OLPC.

As an aside:
The much publicized "During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet." statement from Al Gore during the presidential election drew much fire from the media. I believe the media put a different twist causing misunderstanding and ridicule that "Al Gore claimed he invented the Internet". However, as Internet pioneers Vint Cerf & Bob Kahn set the record straight in this little known article, Al Gore does deserve some credit for making the Internet a global success.

I look forward to hearing Cerf at this years Norwegian Computer Society's annual awards event.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Every now and then it is good to be prodded into blogging. So last week's post by Eirik was indeed welcome! Thanks Eirik! And the encouragement seemed well timed; just as Microsoft had announced their HealthVault initiative. Evidently beating Google to this service (see Google Health)

Enabling consumer-citizens to manage their own healthcare records, the next wave of digital-device invasion of the home is quite clear - healthcare devices! So while MP3 players/iPods, DVDs, and gaming devices have taken their chunk of wallet, the next wave could see a whole range of heart-rate, insulin, blood-pressure monitors and everything the bio-medical electronic firms can conjure up. After all, health is serious business.

To me, this service as another implementation of the Societal Digital Infrastructure (see other blogposts with this tag) -- a service that opens for disruptive changes in the way people and authorities receive and disburse health-care. We in Norway -- and other comparable welfare states -- have health-care served by Government, financed by taxes. While this centralised model works well in a small population -- to get an idea of the depth of integration in Norway see the Electronic prescription intiative -- I am not so convinced it can scale up to work in a diverse and not-so-well-integrated environment like say US or India.

So, will HealthVault offer a means to implement a healthcare service in these environments similar to that of say Norway, with much simpler "integration"? Conversely, will HealthVault challenge the centralised models like that in Norway, by opening up for other options? Microsoft has launched this HealthVault together with some service providers and device manufacturers, in what can be termed as a ecosystem. And Google will soon follow.

I suspect there is sufficient consumer/citizen interest in this domain to make this happen and drive for standardisation of data exchange and device functionality. Then, I hope health-care providers can interoperate in much the same way as telecom providers or banks are forced to interconnect with their competitors to provide a service to their consumers. Ultimately, consumers must benefit from this.

It will be interesting to watch how health-care providers will respond to this service-commodization? And the insurance industry? We all know how reluctant mobile operators were, when number portability was mandated by law. And with bank-number portability in Norway on the drawing-board there is precedent for some interesting times.

As a (software) planning architect I am seeing more examples that convince me that the "S" in SOA should be "Society" :-)

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Looks like ISPs are in for competition from a new source -- device manufacturers. Last week HTC announced HTCmail - a service powered by Microsoft's Hosted Exchange offering.

There is much talk about the next great thing in software architectures - Software-as-a-service. Microsoft has been working on making this happen in the marketplace (Hosted Exchange is quite old; I recall trying to sell the concept to a telco and a bank some 4-5 years ago). Anyway, Microsoft probably has a solid base of empirical data to understand how software-as-a-service will work in the marketplace. I think that this will be invaluable in white-labelling software (white-labelling is a business strategy like co-branding (retail) or code-sharing (airlines) that allows a player to extend the reach of their offerings -- HTC is aiming at mass market or small businesses who could not be bothered by installing or configuring Exchange installations)

I'm not quite sure what Microsoft's SaaS strategy is, but I would suspect they are looking to attract other players to distribute services from their Live-portfolio. Could P&C insurance vendors be mature partners? or banks? After all they have been white-labelling for some time now. And then, should Telcos focus on delivering high-quality access for these services?.. or should they aggressively go after digital content? Probably both.

Disruption appears to be more the rule than the exception.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The digital home appears to be many steps closer. 3 announcements in the last few days lead me to this:
(a) Microsoft has just recently released the Home Server to its OEM partners. (see more here)
(b) Clearwire & Sprint announced that they to jointly build out WiMax networks in the US
(c) Facebook acquired Parakey See this

So imagine Facebook applications increasing social networking, particularly sharing digital content, and MS Home Server reducing the load of managing family produced digital content and WiMax networks making it easier and cheaper for untethered networking for the masses. OK, fine it will be a dream if it all comes together -- but there are some opportunities here given the rapid growth of multi-PC households and enormous rise in the production of digital content

Will service providers like telcos, media or even insurance companies capitalise on these developments to reduce churn (by reducing the consumer-employee-citizen schizophrenia that many customers experience)? I hope mine would

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Photosynth from Microsoft Research (see here) takes Hypertexting, Semantics, Graphics and Social Networks to an amazing entertaining level ... with great potential for societies and businesses. See this video and judge for yourself.

Am not sure George Orwell would have approved (not that any one would have asked for approval) but this technology does bring a whole new meaning to "triangulation" -- distance learning, virtual tourism and telemedicine are some areas that can benefit from such technologies and affect the way societies work and live.

I sense a Facebook application (built on their application platform) is just round the corner :-)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Business Intelligence and Information Management meets Social Responsibility. See 

This mashup is a brilliant example of information technology driving transparency to create a world for the citizens and not only the big-buck businesses.  Combining internet technology with law has some ground shaking potential. So, now the "Right to Information Act" or Offentlighetsloven (or whatever each nation chooses to call their public information policy) can have real teeth. Watch this 6-min video) and judge the potential for yourself.

As a citizen, I wonder what happens to the old way politicians were elected to power? Do we really need to vote people in for 4 or 7 years at a stretch?

As a technologist, I see some really interesting ways to leverage topic-maps, semantic technologies and open-format content.

The "open-sourcedness" of this type of initiative is definitely the way to go. Need to push for information acess (social scientists) and information and semantic technology standards (technologists).
PS! This Wired article set me on this train of thought.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Sam Pitroda was instrumental in driving the telecom-based transformation in India (in particular rural India). He is now chairman of the Knowledge Commission, an initiative to prepare India for the Knowledge Society. An ambitious, brave and breathtaking effort.

This is a patience game as the network effect will take time to bear fruits. However, Nehru and his advisors did that with education -- soon after independence in the 50s -- when they had the foresight to prioritise high-quality indigenious education. Sam Pitroda, with Rajiv Gandhi's initiative did that with Telecom -- where he was instrumental in opening up the telecom services and devices to small-scale entrepreneurs (I viewed this as a kind of micro-entrepreneurship along the lines of micro-credit). I sincerely hope the Knowledge Commission succeeds in driving this change. 

Meanwhile, I have great expectations from Norway's Education Transformation initiative (Knowledge Promotion - Kunnskapsløft) …. And I dream of the possibility to export the Knowledge Promotion programme to other nations. Reading one of the reports from the Knowledge Commission, I understood that there are about 4 million teachers in India; some fewer than Norway's total population of 4.5 million …. And again, it struck me that "Norway as a test-bed for the digital society" can be quite real. Both for societal development and business opportunities; and it seems like it would work well with Norway's own efforts in search for alternative sources of value creation (once the oil and gas wells run dry).

Somewhere in the Knowledge Commision's many reports I recall reading that education was equated with healthcare. At the first read, it seemed odd; but then still dreaming, I wondered if this could be the first small steps to a welfare state ....  and there again the test-bed line of thinking! Societies cannot be exported; but a Societal Digital Infrastructure could and be a strong enabler for societal change.

A long road ahead and some great business opportunties; I continue dreaming ....

Thursday, February 08, 2007

On Monday Microsoft unveils Windows mobile 6. See this

It could be a while before Microsoft operationalizes its partner strategy… and then non-Telco ISPs will be offering VoIP services. It looks like this may coincide with the WiMAX fanout that Intel appears to be pushing for:

But then, maybe this is an opportunity for Telcos to take on ALL messaging needs for the enterprise? Why? Because, Microsoft is going to tie Windows Mobile 6 to MS Exchange.

Looks like the pie may have just gotten bigger ..... I recall a project from Microsoft Research in Bangalore to roll out 50.000 Internet kiosks in rural India ..... wireless ofcourse.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Oh yes, Microsoft and Apple both managed to take center stage last week. Clearly the Digital Home appears to be heading in the direction of "commodity service".

However, it is Prof. Lessig, in his column for Wired Magazine, who has triggered this blogpost. He makes some interesting points in relation to the development of "basic infrastructure" for the Digital Society (my term, not his). He draws on his experiences from the Microsoft vs. Dept of Justice case. The learnings from such a landmark case should be used to drive policy-makers and solution designers in deciding on matters of such vital importance.

Prof. Lessig mentions municipalities and network-neutrality -- important aspects in the discussion of basic infrastructure for the Digital Society. I take the consumer-citizen perspective to discuss the scenarios needed to drive the  societal digital infrastructure (SDI) and solutions. SDI is at a higher-level of abstraction than basic infrastructure and is absolutely dependent on a stable basic infrastructure. I hope that a "citizen-driven design" approach can force "infrastructure providers" to agree on standards and terms for competition.
(Aside: At a very early stage, the Norwegian banking industry agreed on what portions of the banking value network were deemed "infrastructure" and what were open for competition; this formed the basis for creation of very advanced banking services. Latterly, the railways were split into an organisation for maintaining the tracks; and opening for companies operating train services. Surprisingly, this has not happened as transparently for the Telecom & broadband industry. Which makes Prof. Lessig's article interesting)

Reading Prof. Lessig's comments on the Linux / Microsoft discussion; I recalled my own observations when the anti-trust lawsuit was at it's hottest. Microsoft was, and still is, very clever in managing its status as the company "people love to hate"; Microsoft have driven the platform development and the solution development tracks simultaneously. Most businesses that are part of their partner ecosystem accept the "carrot" (basic infrastructure) while understanding the "stick" (Microsoft's ability to enters markets that they believe are neccessary to build out the platform). This Darwinistic approach to platform-building has served users well, it has definitely helped Microsoft ... and I suppose partners also have benefitted.

So, is there anything municipalities can learn from Microsoft's strategies? They can learn from another Microsoft'ism -- being user-centric, focusing on making things as simple as possible (but not simpler -- to quote Albert Einstein).

I hope the Trådløse Trondheim (Wireless Trondheim) project can constructively drive the basic infrastructure discussion for the Digital Society. We need to move past the discussions of operating systems and network protocols; we must solve technical interoperability if we are to solve the challenges of semantic interoperability.

Monday, January 08, 2007

The Consumer Electronics Show starts in a few hours in Las Vegas. Bill Gates is scheduled to deliver the keynote (as he has done the last 8-9 years). I have been following the show over the last 4 years (from a distance, have not yet had a chance to visit). The focus has been almost only entertainment related topics and more recently on mobile and wireless topics. While most agree that consumer technology is much more than just entertainment, it is entertainment that drives the volumes and the development of technologies. This year, I noticed that (probably for the first time) CES has a topic on healthcare. I’m referring to “The Future of Consumer Electronics: Convergence with Home Health”.

What triggered this post was a poster I saw while watching the Christmas season special of Extreme Makeovers : Home Edition. The focus of this episode was rebuilding a free clinic in Los Angeles, USA. The poster at the clinic said "Health care is not a privilege it is a basic right". Living in Norway, I tend to take basic healthcare services for granted (they are a basic right mandated by law). Well, this is not a “social work” post; it is about an integration solution creating a win-win-win-wn-win proposition for players in different industries – broadcast, audio, video and display devices, software, broadband --- and ofcourse government, insurance and home security. The benefits are easy to comprehend but some very relevant questions need to be addressed. Questions like
• Who initiates and drives such a project?
• What type of governance structure does such a project need?
• How is a business case formed? Or metrics does one need to measure value?
The technology is probably the least challenging part; but add to the list of questions “patents” and “intellectual property” issues and a nightmare project emerges. So, is this a government or commercial? I’d say a joint-venture?

Hopefully, we have learned from creating railway tracks with different gauges, and can secure digital railway standardization quickly. Or can we? This infrastructure will drive value creation in the Digital Society – with new intermediaries, standards and protocols for digital services. I called this infrastructure “Societal Digital Infrastructure” and am hoping the entertainment industry can play an active role in accelerating the development of this infrastructure. Perhaps we, in the Nordics can leverage our investments in societal infrastructure to exploit hardware and software technologies to create such an infrastructure. Why not use the Nordics as a test-bed for advanced societal services? After all, we showed the way with mobile technologies….

Health care services/solutions was the theme for last year's "Imagine Cup" (Microsoft's student programming challenge competition). I saw some interesting solutions from the Nordics. So, I’m curious as to what Bill Gates would say in his opening keynote starting in a couple of hours… Could he trigger something ambitious enough to match Nicholas Negroponte’s One Laptop Per Child education project?