Techonomy http://techonomy.com Tue, 28 Jul 2015 15:00:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.7 Shanghai Street View: Wealth Explosion http://techonomy.com/2015/07/shanghai-street-view-weath-explosion/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/shanghai-street-view-weath-explosion/#comments Tue, 28 Jul 2015 14:35:02 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22355 In the last two months alone, at least three wealth management shops have opened up in my neighborhood, often in spaces that were vacant for years or inhabited by struggling businesses. And my neighborhood in Hongkou District is quite ordinary, which means Shanghai’s trendier areas have undoubtedly been hit by the same scourge of wealth management shops.

More broadly, this sudden explosion looks a lot like the kind of boom-bust pattern you often see in China, be it in our stock markets or the latest business trends. On the retail scene, I’ve written about similar booms in convenience stores and coffee shops, which both occurred quite rapidly and created huge supply gluts.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

My first hint that something big was on the way came late last year when one of my younger friends, a 20-something and frequent job hopper, called to tell me he’d just changed jobs again. After all, this was the friend who first told me about WeChat back in 2011, the same year the service launched and well before most people had heard of the mobile messaging service that would later take China by storm.

My friend had previously worked at a wide range of jobs, from selling stored value cards to managing a yoga studio, so I was curious to hear where he’d landed next. I was somewhat disappointed to learn that he was now working for a wealth management company that his friend had recently opened, as that kind of company didn’t sound all that exciting. Never mind that he didn’t have any experience in the financial services industry.

Fast forward to the present, when wealth management shops have suddenly become the latest hot trend in Shanghai. In the last two months alone, at least three such shops have opened up in my neighborhood, often in spaces that were vacant for years or inhabited by struggling businesses. And my neighborhood in Hongkou District is quite ordinary, which means Shanghai’s trendier areas have undoubtedly been hit by the same scourge of wealth management shops.

More broadly, this sudden explosion looks a lot like the kind of boom-bust pattern you often see in China, be it in our stock markets or the latest business trends. On the retail scene, I’ve written about similar booms in convenience stores and coffee shops, which both occurred quite rapidly and created huge supply gluts.

For anyone who doesn’t have enough wealth to worry about such things, I should quickly describe exactly what these wealth management shops do. They sell investment products to anyone wealthy enough and looking for better return rates than they can get from traditional bank savings accounts.

Most of these high-yield products are backed by assets like real estate or coal mines, which can produce income to pay back investors at the advertised return rates. Of course, few people actually bother to ask what is backing their investment when they buy these products, and most are simply happy to get their regular payments. But that’s a topic for another day.

Returning to my original story, much has happened since my friend first went to the small wealth management shop last year. Not surprisingly, he left the job after just a few months and went to work for another, much larger wealth management company. I know this because he called up asking if I wanted to invest with them.

But my young friend wasn’t the only one who wanted to help me get more for my money. An older friend who likes playing the stock market has also encouraged me to look into these investment products, many of which have smartphone apps that can show an investor just how much money has been earned in real time.

Then there are the three wealth management shops that have opened near me. One moved into a seedy old massage parlor that always seemed a bit dubious and was frequently changing owners. The second moved into a candy shop not far away, which also seemed empty most of the time. The third opened in a space that has never been filled in a new nearby apartment building that has been on the market for more than a year.

This sudden explosion seems quite excessive, and I sincerely doubt the market needs so many advisors to tell us how to beat the banks. For a glimpse at what’s likely to happen, we can look at the convenience store explosion that happened about four years ago when Japanese chains Lawson and FamilyMart and U.S. chain 7-Eleven opened hundreds of new stores in a very short time in Shanghai.

That boom culminated with four separate stores openings at a relatively low-key intersection near my home, including all the big chains and a local one. Three years later, only two shops remain on the corner, and I suspect that a similar ratio of closures has occurred throughout Shanghai.

I also chronicled the coffee shop explosion in a recent blog post, and suspect many of those stores will also close in the next two years. Unlike coffee shops and convenience stores, wealth management companies aren’t really the type of shop that I would ever visit, which is one reason I was disappointed to see three open near me so rapidly. Perhaps one or two more will open nearby in this latest retailing trend, only to be followed by the closure of many in the latest of boom-bust cycles in China’s book.

Doug Young lives in Shanghai and writes opinion pieces about tech investment in China for Techonomy and at youngchinabiz.com. He is the author of a book about the media in China, “The Party Line: How the Media Dictates Public Opinion in Modern China.”

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Build It and They Will Drive http://techonomy.com/2015/07/build-it-and-they-will-drive/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/build-it-and-they-will-drive/#comments Fri, 24 Jul 2015 19:35:13 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22331 The University of Michigan and nearly 50 industry partners including Ford, General Motors, Qualcomm, State Farm Insurance, Toyota, Verizon, and others are betting that if you build it, self-driving cars will come. That take on the classic line from Field of Dreams applies to a gigantic new facility for proving, testing, and promoting such cars. Or, as the facility’s creators put it on their website, “the foundations of a commercially viable ecosystem of connected and automated vehicles for moving people and goods.”

The new 32-acre facility, called Mcity, opened this week in Ann Arbor and will serve as an auto industry ecosystem for use by anyone researching autonomous vehicles. Read more at The Wall Street Journal

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(Image via Shutterstock)

The University of Michigan and nearly 50 industry partners including Ford, General Motors, Qualcomm, State Farm Insurance, Toyota, Verizon, and others are betting that if you build it, self-driving cars will come. That take on the classic line from Field of Dreams applies to a gigantic new facility for proving, testing, and promoting such cars. Or, as the facility’s creators put it on their website, “the foundations of a commercially viable ecosystem of connected and automated vehicles for moving people and goods.”

The new 32-acre facility, called Mcity, opened this week in Ann Arbor and will serve as an auto industry ecosystem for use by anyone researching autonomous vehicles.

“There’s nothing like it in the world,” according to Peter Sweatman, the director of the university’s Mobility Transformation Center, the public-private research institute that includes the testing area.

The site is extensive, to say the least, including approximately five lane-miles of roads with intersections, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, street lights, and obstacles such as construction barriers. Various road surfaces, from concrete and brick to dirt and rock, a range of curve radii and ramps, sculpted dirt, and grassy areas all contribute to the range and authenticity of environments developers will be able to throw at their vehicles and systems.

Current testing on connected and autonomous vehicles is taking place around the world, but one of the main things that makes the Mcity facility unique will be its best-of-both-worlds approach to testing. Currently other controlled facilities are proprietary, with open access to only a select few; and testing on public roads raises its own unique challenges (think traffic accidents and damage.)

One other thing that Mcity has going for it? The weather, or namely the variety of weather, that developers and testers can expect in Michigan. Because many of the systems that autonomous cars rely upon don’t excel in inclement weather, having a facility where rain, wind, and snow are more commonplace will have real benefit.

“To me, the special cases—bad lighting conditions, road conditions, bad weather conditions—are the things we really need to work on,” said Raj Rajkumar, a Carnegie Mellon University professor and a developer of software for autonomous vehicles. “Testing at a course like this is how we make these things more reliable.”

For more information, check out the original article in the Wall Street Journal and the Mcity homepage.

And make sure to visit past sessions held at previous Techonomy events, like Hiking, Biking and Responsive Transit from last year’s Techonomy Detroit conference, and take a look at the program we’re building for this year’s meeting on September 15th.

Read more at The Wall Street Journal

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Why I’m So Excited About Watson, IBM’s Answer “Man” http://techonomy.com/2015/07/why-im-so-excited-about-watson-ibms-answer-man/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/why-im-so-excited-about-watson-ibms-answer-man/#comments Thu, 23 Jul 2015 21:23:02 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22320 When Ginni Rometty recently explained to Charlie Rose that she and her team were “reinventing IBM using data, the cloud, and mobility,” it began to sound like clients would soon be able to subscribe to the company's much-promoted Watson artificial intelligence service for solutions to the world’s most difficult and complicated problems. Four thousand companies are now in line to subscribe to Watson Health, and it’s easy to understand why.

Watson is said to have the power to learn about everything going on in the world about cancer and, based on all that knowledge, recommend customized treatments.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

When Ginni Rometty recently explained to Charlie Rose that she and her team were “reinventing IBM using data, the cloud, and mobility,” it began to sound like clients would soon be able to subscribe to the company’s much-promoted Watson artificial intelligence service for solutions to the world’s most difficult and complicated problems.

Not long after, the Washington Post detailed precisely how a subscription to IBM’s Watson might work to fight cancer. Titled “The Human Upgrade, Watson’s Next Feat, Taking on Cancer,” the article describes how the goal is for Watson to “use sophisticated artificial intelligence to find personalized treatments for every cancer patient by comparing disease and treatment histories, genetic data, scans, and symptoms against the vast universe of medical knowledge.”

According to Rometty on Charlie Rose, 4,000 companies are now in line to subscribe to Watson Health, and it’s easy to understand why.

Watson is said to have the power to learn about everything going on in the world about cancer and, based on all that knowledge, recommend customized treatments.

Few enterprises can afford to buy or build a system remotely comparable to Watson, and, under Rometty, investment and information have been poured into IBM’s amazingly-well-informed, nimble superbrain.

“IBM invented almost everything about data,” Rometty insisted. “Our research lab was the first one ever in Silicon Valley. Creating Watson made perfect sense for us. Now he’s ready to help everyone.”

Data, clearly, will be the most important natural resource of the 21st century. If we all had a Watson, capitalizing on its ability to find connections between all kinds of information would potentially improve every decision.

Because Watson can analyze and compare all the information we compile today about cancer, it can digest the huge pools of data created by research, people’s records, and daily routines to find patterns and connections that predict needs and solutions. Today, Watson is learning how to read mammography film to make sure its recommendations incorporate everything about each patient’s individual profile.

It feels like a real revolution in healthcare is on the horizon says Lynda Chin, a physician-scientist and associate vice chancellor for the University of Texas system. She is overseeing the Watson project at MD Anderson Cancer Center.

“These types of programs are key to democratizing medical treatment and eliminating the disparity that exists between those with access to the best doctors and those without,” Chin continued.

She, like Rometty, sees IBM’s Watson as “technology that allows us to break free from our current healthcare system based on and limited by community providers.”

Suddenly, the service IBM calls Watson Health offers an expert center to everyone. Organizations that subscribe no longer have to take the do-it-yourself approach to cancer research.

As Dr. Chin says, “Instead of having to find specialists in a different city, photocopy and send all the patient’s files to them, and spend countless hours researching the medical literature, a doctor could simply consult Watson.”

As someone who was diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer in January of 2002, I can testify to the immense frustration every cancer patient experiences when we realize that our doctors simply cannot give us definitive answers.

Cancer treatment today is much too often a trial and error process. Oncologists cannot keep up with the results of all the research underway, never mind compare the progress of one patient’s cancer with the progress of the thousands of others with the same form of the disease.

Cancer patients today live or die in a medical world that is far from tech literate. Computers are making their way into clinics and offices, but when you, the patient, are meeting with your oncologist, the computer is rarely part of the conversation.

Most often, when you meet with your doctor, he or she paws through a thick, worn file of paperwork from labs and hospitals attempting to answer your questions. In the process they are implicitly conveying how difficult it is to keep up with your progress.

This is hardly encouraging. Unless you are a math wizard who can quickly figure ratios of false positives in your head, very often a visit to the oncologist wipes out everything you thought you knew and replaces it with a thousand additional questions and the queasy feeling one has when walking along the edge of a steep cliff. I hope health care companies will subscribe to Watson Health with alacrity.

Rometty on Charlie Rose said IBM’s Watson is also working with clients in the areas of energy, transportation, governance, and finance: “IBM has the largest commercial research organization in the world. We are totally focused on how Watson can use what we learn to transform industries and reimagine work.”

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How Big Data Can Make People Healthier in Emerging Markets http://techonomy.com/2015/07/how-big-data-can-make-people-healthier-in-emerging-markets/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/how-big-data-can-make-people-healthier-in-emerging-markets/#comments Tue, 21 Jul 2015 18:38:35 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22284 In many emerging markets, reliable data on healthcare systems is limited or nonexistent. This makes it difficult to address urgent healthcare challenges in some of the world’s least developed countries. But a growing number of tech entrepreneurs and public health activists are finding ways to fill the data gaps. And as smartphones and other connected devices proliferate, fertile new sources of data are emerging.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

In many emerging markets, reliable data on healthcare systems is limited or nonexistent. This makes it difficult to address urgent healthcare challenges in many countries. But a growing number of tech entrepreneurs and public health activists are finding ways to fill the data gaps.

There are many gaps to address. Such healthcare systems and supply chains are not typically powered by modern IT systems. Large quantities of health data end up in paper records that are lost or forgotten. Undocumented cash transactions at hospitals and pharmacies are common—and sometimes preferred by those seeking to avoid regulations or taxes.

“Healthcare professionals are flying blind in many emerging markets,” says Pablo Kommisar, managing partner at Xcellen, a consulting firm that advises Asian healthcare companies on sales force optimization. “These are also high-potential markets for healthcare organizations, but the lack of good data prevents them from operating efficiently.”

Yet the situation is improving as healthcare systems everywhere get more digitized. And as smartphones and other connected devices proliferate, fertile new sources of data are emerging. Social media activity and search engine records, for instance, can give indications on people’s health. Travel records can show where they have been—and what diseases they may have encountered along the way.

Digital health startups are contributing as well. Online health information portals, disease management apps, telemedicine services, consumer-health wearables vendors, and countless other tech companies are gaining traction wherever there’s a signal. These companies not only extend the reach and quality of healthcare services in emerging markets, but also generate huge quantities of data.

“Many up-and-coming health tech companies understand that data is key,” says Julien de Salaberry, chief innovation officer at The Propell Group, a Singapore-based investment and advisory firm for health tech startups in Asia.

mClinica is one company that sees health data collection as a path to value creation. It partners with pharmacies and clinics in emerging markets to gather real-time data on medicine sales, physician prescribing habits, patient demographics, and epidemiological trends. As mClinica’s director of new markets, I’m helping to develop these efforts in Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Indonesia—four countries with fast-changing but opaque healthcare markets.

Public health organizations and academic institutions are also working to leverage the power of big data for emerging markets healthcare. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), which was recently profiled in a compelling new book called “Epic Measures,” is one of the most impactful.

IHME is best known for its Global Burden of Disease (GBD) study, a monumental initiative to systematically analyze the causes of disease and death in all countries. Led by Chris Murray, a leading figure in global health, the study guides decision makers in government, donor institutions, and the private sector. It provides them a mechanism for identifying public health problems and designing interventions with maximum impact.

To calculate the burden of disease in emerging markets where there is limited health data, IHME and its global network of researchers routinely use obscure datasets and creative analytic approaches. Air pollution, for instance, is a major cause of respiratory disease and other health problems. It’s not well measured in many countries, so the GBD researchers came up with global estimates by running analyses on satellite images.

“We face some pretty big data gaps in global health,” says Murray, “but analytic methods are advancing so quickly that we can now do disease mapping at a really local level, and forecast the burden of disease decades into the future.”

IHME has many other initiatives in global health research, including programs to measure vaccine efficacy and tobacco control. It operates a Global Health Data Exchange that enables health professionals to share and discover new sources of data for their research. Based at the University of Washington, it also offers courses, fellowships, and academic prizes.

Organizations like IHME are working intensively to leverage the power of big data for public health, but the data is still small in many emerging markets. Yet as healthcare systems in even the poorest countries get digitized, the opportunities for improving healthcare are tremendous.

Will Greene is the Director of New Markets for mClinica, a health data and analytics company based in Singapore.

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Are Media Companies One Native Ad Away from Becoming Press-titutes? http://techonomy.com/2015/07/are-media-companies-one-native-ad-away-from-becoming-press-titutes/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/are-media-companies-one-native-ad-away-from-becoming-press-titutes/#comments Tue, 21 Jul 2015 18:15:42 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22292 When we were asked to participate in Omidyar’s “Future of Media in India” event, David Kirkpatrick and I both questioned what we could add on a topic that was pretty far from our own experience. In hindsight, we knew more than we gave ourselves credit for. The India market, it turns out, is not much different than that of the US, maybe just a couple of years behind. Publishers and journalists are eager to transition from print to digital, they are trying to figure out how to reach their readers in a mobile-first world, and they are struggling to find a sustainable business model to support their efforts. 

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From left: Indrajit Gupta, David Kirkpatrick, Maria Ressa, Marcus Brauchli. Photo by Josh Kampel.

From left: Indrajit Gupta, David Kirkpatrick, Maria Ressa, Marcus Brauchli. Photo by Josh Kampel.

When we were asked to participate in Omidyar’s “Future of Media in India” event, David Kirkpatrick and I both questioned what we could add on a topic that was pretty far from our own experience. In hindsight, we knew more than we gave ourselves credit for. The India market, it turns out, is not much different than that of the US, maybe just a couple of years behind. Publishers and journalists are eager to transition from print to digital, they are trying to figure out how to reach their readers in a mobile-first world, and they are struggling to find a sustainable business model to support their efforts.

David discussed his experience watching his longtime employer Time Inc. wrestle with such questions, and the growing role that Facebook, which he wrote about in The Facebook Effect, will play in the media landscape. Meanwhile, I shared the stage with a group that gave various perspectives on models for media monetization. It included News Corp’s Raju Narisetti, and the former editor of the Chicago Tribune who now runs the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, Ann Marie Lipinski. Dutch De Correspondent founder Rob Wijnberg discussed his business model based solely on subscriber revenue, and News Lens founder Joey Chung explained how he became one of the fastest growing news sites in Taiwan. We were preceded by a panel on the new tech-enabled newsroom that included Wall Street Journal and Washington Post editor turned media investor Marcus Brauchli and former CNN correspondent Maria Ressa, who now runs the hugely influential Filipino social news network Rappler.

What was most surprising was the pessimism of the large number of eminent attendees Omidyar had gathered in the room. Predominantly Indian journalists and media entrepreneurs, they overwhelmingly said that the population there is not willing to pay for content. (That’s partly because even print papers have been mostly free or close to it in India.) In the same breath, they expressed their concern about taking advertising dollars or even more objectionable, the idea of business models that leveraged paid content or native advertising. This sentiment seemed to stem from the way in which political parties in India have historically exploited the media as a mouthpiece for their own gain. I learned a new word, “presstitutes,” which one audience member used when explaining what local media had been called when publishing third-party content. I tried to make the case that it is not that black and white. At Techonomy we have found that we can often work with brands to co-create content that serves our editorial mission and delivers valuable insights to our community.

The questions that media companies around the world face when launching new ventures are little different in India. Should you be an original content creator or an aggregator? Require a paywall or be advertiser supported? Work with native advertising or not? Then of course our own Techonomy model relies heavily on high-quality editorial events as the foundation for our other activities. Ultimately, my recommendation to the group was to define your unique mission, understand your audience and engage with them, and don’t be opposed to working with partners who share in your vision and are willing to support you. Unfortunately, not all media ventures will commercially succeed, but with the various platforms available to distribute content, maybe success could be defined individually a different way.

The Omidyar Network is a Techonomy partner.

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I Heart This Overlooked Feature of the Apple Watch http://techonomy.com/2015/07/i-heart-this-overlooked-feature-of-the-apple-watch/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/i-heart-this-overlooked-feature-of-the-apple-watch/#comments Mon, 20 Jul 2015 16:35:02 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22273 One of the features that most intrigues me about the Apple Watch is the one that lets you share heartbeats. It’s the sound you hear when you’re being held by someone you love. It’s something that encapsulates our humanity. It’s one of the first ways an expectant mother connects with her child—the fetal heartbeat heard via ultrasound.

This little feature has been overlooked in many of the product reviews. I am fascinated by a technological connection that fosters intimacy between two people physically regardless of where they are. Unlike FaceTime or Skype, which replicate a lesser version of someone’s visual presence, sharing a heartbeat pioneers a new realm of digital intimacy that links our bodies and our devices in a new dance of tactile connectivity.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

In Japanese, the term doki doki represents the sound your heart makes when it’s pounding. It’s often used in anime series to represent nervousness or anxiety. In one of my favorite shows, whenever the main character saw her crush in the halls, everything in her world would narrow down to one thing: the sound of her heart pounding furiously as he approached. Doki doki. Doki doki.

One of the features that most intrigues me about the Apple Watch is the one that lets you share heartbeats. It’s the sound you hear when you’re being held by someone you love. It’s something that encapsulates our humanity. It’s one of the first ways an expectant mother connects with her child—the fetal heartbeat heard via ultrasound.

Technology has a way of both shrinking and amplifying intimacy, depending on the circumstances. Having dinner with a friend who is constantly checking their emails? Not good. Being able to hear the heartbeat of your partner when you’re far apart? Cool.

This little feature has been overlooked in many of the product reviews. I am fascinated by a technological connection that fosters intimacy between two people physically regardless of where they are. Unlike FaceTime or Skype, which replicate a lesser version of someone’s visual presence, sharing a heartbeat pioneers a new realm of digital intimacy that links our bodies and our devices in a new dance of tactile connectivity.

As a futurist, my first thought was to wonder what Apple does with this feature. What markets might be created around it? How could it commercialize this type of intimacy? Celebrities instantly came to mind. Social media has enabled fans to connect with their idols in new ways. Stars can now share video clips, images, tweets, messages, vines, and all sorts of other media that create the illusion of accessibility. Teen idols such as One Direction, Taylor Swift, or any relationship where fans are intensely invested with their heroes could be a potential market.

Think about it: if you were obsessed with Taylor Swift, what could be more intimate than having her heartbeat transmitted to your Apple Watch at random intervals? What if for $3.99 you could subscribe Harry Styles’ heartbeat? A few times a day your wrist would buzz and you would be able to feel it—instant intimacy, of a sort.

What about sports fans? What if during the World Cup or the World Series or the NHL Playoffs you could get a burst of your favorite player’s heartbeat while he’s playing the game live? You’re sitting at home glued to the screen and your player is about to take shot—your wrist vibrates and suddenly both of your heartbeats are pounding in anticipation.

Media executives already know people watch their favorite shows and movies on multiple screens, but what opportunities would this feature of the Apple Watch create for content? We consistently seek more interactive experiences, so why not an app that syncs to your Netflix and activates during a moment of high tension? When Frank Underwood gets increasingly caught up in his own web of lies, what if you also had a link to his metabolism?

You may think I’m crazy. But in the Roman Age, people would buy vials filled with the sweat of their favorite gladiator and wear it as perfume. Is a digital heartbeat really that farfetched?

There are also interesting ways this might be valuable in our daily lives. For military families whose loved ones often can’t give out the details of where they are or what they are doing, an app that regularly sends a snapshot of a heartbeat to the family worrying at home might be reassuring. Or an app that alerts you if your elderly parent or young child’s heartbeat becomes erratic could be a practical safety measure, or a tool to help diagnose a health problem. And what physical indicators might Apple help us share in real time beyond the heartbeat? The sound of breathing? Our cholesterol levels? Facial expressions?

Ultimately, we are at the beginning of a new age of tactile digital communication that I believe will redefine how we communicate with each other. Apple has now created a world where we are literally only a heartbeat away.

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The Hardest Thing to Do in Sport http://techonomy.com/2015/07/the-hardest-thing-to-do-in-sport/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/the-hardest-thing-to-do-in-sport/#comments Thu, 16 Jul 2015 20:25:03 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22263 The human brain and big data; our understanding and application of both are growing in scope and impact thanks to the increasing potential and power of tech. One of the areas they’re increasingly coming together, however, might surprise you. Jordan Muraskin and Jason Sherwin are two of a growing group bringing the science of mental analytics to professional sports and, more precisely, baseball. Over the years, managers, players, and front-office personnel have collected reams of information on hitters and pitchers, trying to mix together the secret sauce that would solve this vexing conundrum. Read more at SB Nation

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

The human brain and big data; our understanding and application of both are growing in scope and impact thanks to the increasing potential and power of tech.

One of the areas they’re increasingly coming together, however, might surprise you.

Jordan Muraskin and Jason Sherwin are two of a growing group bringing the science of mental analytics to professional sports and, more precisely, baseball.

Ted Williams once famously described hitting a baseball as “the hardest single thing to do in sport.” And for years, since long before the Splendid Splinter, people have been trying to better train baseball players, from t-ball to the majors, to put the bat on the ball. Over the years, managers, players, and front-office personnel have collected reams of information on hitters and pitchers, trying to mix together the secret sauce that would solve this vexing conundrum.

The “Moneyball” phenomenon took this data collection and application to new heights, helping teams find hidden gems and put together teams that years before would have gone unnoticed or caused people to scratch their heads in confusion.

But where the data was coming from was key. Everything that makes Moneyball, well, Moneyball, happens as a result of external action. You’re recording where a pitched ball goes, how far hit ball goes, when a batter swings, how hard a pitcher throws, and on and on.

What if you could begin to codify the internal processes that lead to those external results? What if, instead of the how, what, where, or when, you could begin to understand the why? Where would you have to look find it?

The brain, of course. And that’s exactly what Muraskin and Sherwin and their peers have set out to do. By capturing neural data in real time and beginning to learn what mental processes are driving them, they are working to identify the pathways that drive that success at the plate.

And if they can identify that acuity, a growing number of teams are betting they’ll be able to better ID the players that already have it, train the brains of the players that don’t, and find the real diamonds in the rough—outliers for whom hitting, because of a quirk of neural nature, is simply a gift.

For a deeper look into mental analytics and the companies like deCervo (Muraskin and Sherwin’s company), NeuroScouting LLC, and Axon, and teams such as the Red Sox, Cubs, and Rays, that are pushing through into this new frontier, read the full story, “Take Me Out to the Brain Game.”

Read more at SB Nation

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Challenges for Genomics in the Age of Big Data http://techonomy.com/2015/07/challenges-for-genomics-in-the-age-of-big-data/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/challenges-for-genomics-in-the-age-of-big-data/#comments Wed, 15 Jul 2015 16:21:46 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22250 Last week, a group of respected researchers published a commentary about the coming data challenges in genomics. Comparing the projected growth of genomic data to three other sources considered among the most prolific data producers in the world—astronomy, Twitter, and YouTube—these scientists predict that by 2025, genomics could well represent the biggest of big data fields. With the raw data for each human genome taking up about 100 GB, we’re well on our way.

Genomics only recently entered the big data realm, and we have major issues to address before it leapfrogs every other data-generating group.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

Scientists don’t dabble much in predictions. They’re comfortable with data, and facts they can observe. So when they do speculate, it’s worth paying attention.

Last week, a group of respected researchers published a commentary about the coming data challenges in genomics. Comparing the projected growth of genomic data to three other sources considered among the most prolific data producers in the world—astronomy, Twitter, and YouTube—these scientists predict that by 2025, genomics could well represent the biggest of big data fields. With the raw data for each human genome taking up about 100 GB, we’re well on our way.

Genomics only recently entered the big data realm, and we have major issues to address before it leapfrogs every other data-generating group. Here are the top four areas Techonomy believes must be improved in the next decade to get the genomics house in order.

Informed consent

Consent forms are a cornerstone of biomedical research. Any research project collecting genomic data begins with informed consent, a pile of paperwork that human subjects have to sign to be admitted to a study. Currently, these consent forms vary from project to project and from institution to institution, with a wide range of permissions and access guidelines not only for how data will be used in the current study, but also for how that data might be used in the future. This landscape makes it far more challenging than it should be for scientists to share data later, or to delve into existing data to draw new conclusions.

Scientists routinely praise an initiative called the Personal Genome Project, run through Harvard Medical School, for having the most broadly useful informed consent policies. Study participants have the option to be contacted for future studies, for example, and they agree to make their data and samples openly available to other labs. Because of that, PGP data has been accessed by researchers around the world who have used it to make important new discoveries. Before data generation ramps up to the billion-plus human genomes that scientists predict could be sequenced by 2025, it’s imperative that institutions embrace informed consent policies like PGP’s, allowing for massive data sharing and maximizing utility of this data.

The authors of the commentary write: “If we do not commit as a scientific community to sharing now, we run the risk of establishing thousands of isolated, private data collections, each too underpowered to allow subtle signals to be extracted.” Successful data sharing in the future depends on significant improvement in informed consent guidelines.

Data security and storage

How many letters have you gotten in the last few years letting you know that your personal data—credit cards, bank accounts, health, insurance—may have been accessed by someone who violated the security of the organization you trusted to keep your information safe?

Those letters could become even more alarming if they’re reporting the theft of your genomic data. We have no idea how this type of data could be used by criminals, but no doubt there will be a market for it. We must invest now in superior data-protection tools for our genomic data if we hope to keep it safer than our financial data is with today’s leaky systems.

Storage methods must improve as well. Too much scientific data is stored in purpose-built databases, each with its own different formats and access rules. Cloud computing is often considered a way to improve the situation: store genomic data in one place (with lots of redundancy) where scientists, clinicians, and even consumers could access and run queries on it. But this will not improve access to the vast amount of existing data that we could capitalize on now if only it were connected and easily queried. We need the tech world to help with better options to store standardized data securely, and to add hooks to existing public data repositories to make them more useful.

Analysis tools

Virtually all genomic analysis tools were created by and for the research community. If you’ve never seen a data-crunching program designed by a scientist, let’s just say you’ve avoided a serious headache. With the projected explosion in genomic data, it’s critical to have tools that can be used as easily by consumers and physicians as by experts in genetics.

The myriad potential applications of genomics—from choosing the prescription least likely to cause side effects to smart toilets that analyze microbiome health and disease biomarkers each time you flush—all demand a foundation of rapid, reliable analytical tools that don’t require an expert.

To tackle this challenge, we’ll need to harness the best analytical and coding minds, from those quants doing number crunching on Wall Street to the bright minds creating sleek online games and mobile apps.

Clinicians

Most human genomes sequenced so far have been for research use. Ten years from now, it’s likely that the center of gravity will have shifted to medical diagnosis and treatment, or even directly to consumers themselves, depending on how clinical guidelines evolve. The medical world needs to get ready, and fast.

Today, an average consumer can’t just go out and get her genome sequenced. Most opportunities available to consumers require a physician to prescribe a genome sequence—something doctors frequently refuse to do on the grounds that clinical benefit hasn’t been demonstrated. With demand for genome data continually increasing, physicians must be educated not only on potential uses of this data, but also on the concept that such data isn’t something most patients should be shielded from.

In the meantime, regulators must think hard about whether there’s really a need to always maintain a medical gatekeeper between a person and his genomic data. It seems clear that consumers will eventually have access to their own data. If we make that impossible in the United States, it’s likely that people will get the work done elsewhere. Would it really be in their best interest to rely on countries with lax guidelines? Couldn’t we support citizens better with safe, straightforward policies for genome sequencing right here at home?

Genetic counselors probably have the best background to meet this demand, so they need to be empowered in the medical community. These counselors should be able to order whole genome sequences or gene tests without having a medical doctor sign off. There’s a staggering shortage of genetic counselors, so we also need to make an investment in this field to attract more people to the career.

If we can meet these challenges, we’ll be in good shape when genomics outpaces every other source of data. But we have to get cracking right now.

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With a 3D-printed Instrument, This Musician Is Composing the Future http://techonomy.com/2015/07/with-a-3d-printed-instrument-this-musician-is-composing-the-future/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/with-a-3d-printed-instrument-this-musician-is-composing-the-future/#comments Mon, 13 Jul 2015 13:59:40 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22209 Often, it begins in the dark. When the LEDs light up—in red, yellow, blue, green, and purple—the face inside the mask becomes faintly perceptible. But before the gathering crowd can identify the man, the music comes on. It comes in swells and ribbons. It comes as a devouring chaos, as a frenetic torrent of notes and phrases, looping back into new motifs of sound. Onyx Ashanti invented the instrument he plays, which he calls the exo-voice. He also printed it with a 3D printer he built himself.

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Onyx Ashanti performing in his exo-voice.

Onyx Ashanti performing in his exo-voice.

Inventor/musician Onyx Ashanti sees creativity as the greatest profit

Often, it begins in the dark. When the LEDs light up—in red, yellow, blue, green, and purple—the face inside the mask becomes faintly perceptible. But before the gathering crowd can identify the man, the music comes on. It comes in swells and ribbons. It comes as a devouring chaos, as a frenetic torrent of notes and phrases, looping back into new motifs of sound.

Onyx Ashanti invented the instrument he plays, which he calls the exo-voice. He also printed it with a 3D printer he built himself. It consists of a headpiece and two hand units. The crown apparatus had twin rails that fit on either side of Ashanti’s mohawk, which he has grown long and twists, wrapping the twists in various colors of thread. The rails rest on electrode pads positioned over various parts of the skull, which he says allow for transcranial direct current stimulation. The translucent 3D-printed rails wrap over his forehead, rest on the bridge of his nose, and finally terminate in a pressure-sensitive mouth-piece that functions somewhat like a wind instrument. Lockable straps around the back of the hand keep the keys close to his fingertips.

All three pieces connect wirelessly through cast-off routers he has repurposed, which feed into his computer and then generate sound out through whatever speaker or speaker systems he chooses. Depending on the performance, his amplification could consist of an old boom box or a state-of-the-art concert hall system.

In addition to being able to key notes with the fingers in a manner similar to playing a saxophone or clarinet, Ashanti has added multiple gestural controls, triggering pitch modulators on three different spatial axes. He can also gesture the instrument to loop the notes and then manipulate the layers of loops. For all intents and purposes, when he is performing, Ashanti is simultaneously cyborg, saxophone, theremin, DJ, dancer, producer, and synthesizer.

Ashanti has performed all over the globe in packed clubs and concert halls, at conferences and on street corners. He both spoke and played at the 2015 TEDActive Conference.

Music isn’t the only function of the exo-voice, as he calls the instrument. Recently, Ashanti programmed the hand-units and the mouthpiece to function as keyboards and mouses. He can operate his computer and type with the exo-voice’s hand-units.

Ashanti doesn’t come from the tech world. He was a conventional saxophonist and woodwind player until he went electronic and started using a kind of synthesizer modeled on the sax called a wind controller in 1993. His initial motivation for the exo-voice was just to be able to move his hands and head freely while he was performing instead of having them locked onto the instrument.

In 2011, he began learning to program over the Internet and in Meetups.

“It’s not that I have some kind of natural knack for computers; it’s just that I have a desire to be able to express myself with them,” Ashanti says.

Three months after starting to program, he completed the first iteration of his personalized instrument, which he called the Beatjazz Controller. It was made of “bottlecaps, … cardboard and glue stick, and all this stuff,” he says. Shortly thereafter, he discovered 3D printing at a Maker Fair in New York. Using funds he raised with an Indiegogo campaign, he bought one of Adrian Bowyer’s RepRap kits, also over Indiegogo.

“You print the first piece and it’s just a piece. You print 80 percent of the pieces and it’s still kind of [meaningless]. … It isn’t until you print the last pieces that you’re like ‘Holy shit. It was in the computer and now it’s in my fucking hand.’”

After over two decades as a professional musician, it was easy for Ashanti to turn even the earliest models of the beatjazz controller/exo-voice into unforgettable art.

“People have approached me [to buy the instrument] … ever since I created it,” Ashanti says.

The exo-voice, however, is not for sale at Guitar Center, on Amazon, or on his website.

Ashanti recently moved to Detroit, a city he and other artists believe is more focused on spiritual/creative capital rather than the fiscal. He sleeps on an air mattress in a small bedroom that serves as his living space, studio, and workshop. The Mississippi-native recently moved from Berlin—over the past two decades Ashanti has lived in Atlanta, San Francisco, Amsterdam, and London as well—and survived a five-month-long Michigan winter on a total of $50. He ate rice liberally coated with spirulina every day, sometimes not venturing out for weeks at a time, furiously continuing to develop technology to provide for as many of his needs as possible. Ashanti recently conceived, designed, and printed his own sandals, which he calls “footware,” and promises to follow up with total “bodyware.” He obtains materials through skillshares, trades, street-performing, and concert performances.

“Fuck money,” he says.

“I look at money as a spell,” he says. “It’s a purely mental construct… [If] what I do is about the acquisition of money, then I start molding [my work] based on that whole modality.… It becomes about getting the money and warehousing the money and what you’re going to spend the money on.” He says that would subvert the energy he could otherwise use for imagination into crass business development.

“The reason why the wind controller didn’t become a mainstream instrument [is] because it’s an abstraction of a sax,” he says. That instrument neither creates the kind of beautiful tone a saxophone produces nor developed its own distinct functions. Ashanti wants his exo-voice to be a continually evolving protocol.

“I moved to the open-source thing early in the process,” a philosophic Ashanti explains. “I’m more interested in what this kind of thing means. I look at the idea as a lifeform. The beatjazz controller, the exo-voice, these are just expressions of the idea.”

Ashanti wonders: “Wouldn’t it be interesting if it became less about buying it and more about teaching people to make it, so you would have [peers] … who have built the 3D printer and printed their exo-voice, [and in doing so learn] … how to program and iterate on their own?”

A fairly detailed description and schematics of his earlier beatjazz controller were published in Make: Magazine. Now Ashanti plans to release a fresh set of plans for the exo-voice soon. People across the globe are now producing their own versions of the instrument. “There are other devices out there that were inspired by this design, and those other designs have functions that mine doesn’t have.” Ashanti says he is fascinated to see which aspects of the device others change to suit their own needs for functionality.

“There’s a conversation happening. I always wanted to focus on the conversation more so than trying to profit from it [financially]. … I have profited without actually having to make money in my hand.”

Ashanti’s music is a function of his technological innovation and his technological innovation is a function of his musicality. He created a musical scale based on an eight-bit fingering system—totally different from traditional sax fingering and musical scales.

“This new eight-bit scale is going to allow me to play music that can actually create computer code simultaneously. That is going to be fucking interesting as shit,” he says. “[What] will emerge out of that field, there’s no way for me to ask myself to look out for these things.” Technologically-adept creators like him will make the world a much more interesting place.

To listen to—or maybe the best word is experience—Ashanti’s music, go here: music.onyx-ashanti.com.

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Forget Bubble Talk—Beirut Tech Is Accelerating http://techonomy.com/2015/07/forget-bubble-talk-beirut-tech-is-accelerating/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/forget-bubble-talk-beirut-tech-is-accelerating/#comments Thu, 09 Jul 2015 12:46:10 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22199 Recently called "the Silicon Valley of the Middle East" by CNN, and "the Middle East’s Tech Hub" by TechCrunch, Beirut’s tech scene is the darling of international media of late. (Though Techonomy first wrote about it over two years ago.) The tech scene here has turned a corner, going from fledgling to now officially on the map. Among the reasons: the launch of various funds that will bring over $100 million in investments to Lebanon’s startup economy over the next five years, and the ongoing efforts of Lebanon’s Central Bank to decrease the risk of investing in startups. But now three new companies that specifically aim to foster tech startups are setting up. Two of them are accelerators, and one will invest and nurture slightly more mature companies. In a city of 2.2 million, some are wondering, is this a bubble? And if so, when will it burst?

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

Recently called “the Silicon Valley of the Middle East” by CNN, and “the Middle East’s Tech Hub” by TechCrunch, Beirut’s tech scene is the darling of international media of late. (Though Techonomy first wrote about it over two years ago.) The tech scene here has turned a corner, going from fledgling to now officially on the map. Among the reasons: the launch of various funds that will bring over $100 million in investments to Lebanon’s startup economy over the next five years, and the ongoing efforts of Lebanon’s Central Bank to decrease the risk of investing in startups.

But now three new companies that specifically aim to foster tech startups are setting up. Two of them are accelerators, and one will invest and nurture slightly more mature companies. In a city of 2.2 million, some are wondering, is this a bubble? And if so, when will it burst?

“The value of the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We believe that there is enough in the pipeline for all of these initiatives,” says Omar Chatah, international accelerator manager at UK Lebanon Tech Hub. He considers the new Hub to be “post-accelerator,” as it plans on taking startups that have perhaps graduated from other programs and spending three months with them in Lebanon, before choosing the best ones to bring to London for a 10-month internationalization program. “We send them out to London, where they will be matched with relevant clusters and mentors.”

The other two new companies—Speed and Flat6Labs—are accelerators in the traditional sense. This Beirut branch will be the fourth accelerator that Flat6Labs has set up in the Middle East, with others in Cairo, Abu Dhabi, and Riyadh. To date, it has worked with 68 companies in all.

“There are a few main challenges in the tech space in this region. They are almost exactly the same in each country: lack of capital, still-developing ecosystems, not many angel investors, not many mentors, only a few success stories,” says Ramez Mohamed, CEO at Flat6Labs.

Similar to UK Leb Tech Hub, Flat6Labs aims to bring the best startups out of Lebanon and help them transition to a foreign market. Their target? The Gulf.

“The market in the Middle East is completely different. We might share a language, we understand each other, and there is a common history, but still, for an Egyptian or a Lebanese entrepreneur to open up shop in Dubai, it can be quite challenging. And that is where our role comes in,” says Mohamed. With its four regional accelerators and plans for future expansion, the company hopes to make it easier for a good idea in Egypt to be replicated in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, or Jordan.

The fragmented market in the Middle East is the elephant in the room. Sure, some of the hurdles for the tech industry in Lebanon include slow Internet, lack of funding, or lack of mentorship. But all of these are issues that can be addressed. But beyond that, an even bigger hurdle for a startup is that national markets in the Middle East are so fragmented. In order for investment to pay off, a startup has to succeed in each of those markets, or in the case of Shahiya, a Lebanese recipe portal that was acquired for $13.5 million in 2014, be bought by an international company.

“No one in their right mind would invest in a startup whose target market is purely Lebanon,” says Fadi Bizri, managing director of the young entrepreneurship program Bader, who serves on Speed’s Board of Directors. Bizri was part of the team that founded the first-ever accelerator in Lebanon, Seeqnce. Although that one eventually shut down for “various reasons,” many felt that it was a national success, given that some of the startups it helped emerge, including Presella and Etobb, are considered some of the region’s best.

“We have shown it works. And now people are thinking, OK, we need an accelerator in Lebanon,” explains Bizri. “People still think that we don’t have the mass of people who want to be entrepreneurs. But that is what everyone said when we did Seeqnce and we got hundreds of applications. That was three years ago!”

Speed plans on 3-month programs for 10 startups, with up to $40,000 in funding for each and two rounds a year. It was meant to launch in January, but due to “cultural differences” with the original CEO of Speed that resulted in the two entities parting ways, the project has been delayed and plans on launching this summer.

“Everyone in Lebanon says that we need an accelerator. Everyone is looking for it, everyone is waiting for it,” says Bizri. “If we do it well, it will make a difference in the ecosystem.”

Three cheers for that.

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Reflections from Ross: I Love Cities, and Our Upcoming Techonomy Detroit http://techonomy.com/2015/07/reflections-from-ross-i-love-cities-and-our-upcoming-techonomy-detroit/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/reflections-from-ross-i-love-cities-and-our-upcoming-techonomy-detroit/#comments Wed, 08 Jul 2015 19:52:52 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22189 I spent the long weekend in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by a bunch of very smart people, from many walks of life. It was a bit of a schlep to get to, but perhaps there’s something about the mountain air that clarifies one's thoughts. It certainly gave me ideas for our remaining Techonomy programs this year. The mountains also reinforced my affinity for cities and anything related to them. I appreciate the great outdoors, which in turn makes me appreciate cities even more. There’s little that beats seeing the Manhattan skyline after a few days away. Speaking of cities ... our FOURTH Techonomy Detroit is coming up September 15.

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The Detroit skyline. (Image via Shutterstock)

The Detroit skyline. (Image via Shutterstock)

I spent the long weekend in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by a bunch of very smart people, from many walks of life. It was a bit of a schlep to get to, but perhaps there’s something about the mountain air that clarifies one’s thoughts. It certainly gave me ideas for our remaining Techonomy programs this year. The mountains also reinforced my affinity for cities and anything related to them. I appreciate the great outdoors, which in turn makes me appreciate cities even more. There’s little that beats seeing the Manhattan skyline after a few days away.

Speaking of cities … our FOURTH Techonomy Detroit is coming up September 15. It’s amazing to have watched what’s happened in Detroit over the course of these four years. My first trip there was just before Christmas in 2011. It was freezing, grey, and desolate. And it was clear that Detroit was where we wanted to create our first additional Techonomy conference beyond our flagship November two-day retreat.

Techonomy Detroit has never been about Detroit per se, but about key national issues that many cities are confronting. It is a remarkable and tenacious city, whose history helps illustrate the urgency of the issues we wanted to focus on, especially pertaining to jobs and urban revival. It also helped us hone in on issues like education, civic tech, the maker movement, entrepreneurship, the sharing economy, open data, mobility … just to name a few.

Here are highlights from our Detroit programs over the past three years:

  • Gabriella Gómez-Mont of the Laboratory of Mexico City on Complex-Cities
  • Danae Ringelmann of Indiegogo, Marlin Page of Sisters Code, Chris Genteel of Google, Laura Mather of Unitive, Brian Forde formerly at the White House, and author Andrew Keen in a powerful discussion about inclusion and the tech industry
  • Jennifer Bradley of the Aspen Institute together with Susan Crawford of Harvard on Responsive Cities

You can also watch this short highlight video about the whole event in 2012.

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My Independence Day: No Wallet, No Cash, No Credit, No Lunch http://techonomy.com/2015/07/my-independence-day-no-wallet-no-cash-no-credit-no-lunch/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/my-independence-day-no-wallet-no-cash-no-credit-no-lunch/#comments Tue, 07 Jul 2015 13:15:10 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22188 It was one of those days. ... Monday morning after a long weekend and I was rushing to get out the door to make a 9 am meeting. I got in my car, drove to the train station, and realized I had left my wallet at home. I paused for a second and decided I would attempt to brave the day with no ID, no cash, and no credit cards. Although it's not as ambitious as living for a day on Bitcoin, I figured I could take advantage of the investments made by Apple, Google, PayPal, and others into the mobile payments ecosystem. Armed with my Android phone, I set out to see how easy it would be to have independence from my wallet. Fortunately for my experiment, I switched a few weeks ago from Windows Mobile, where my options would have been even more limited.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

It was one of those days. … Monday morning after a long weekend and I was rushing to get out the door to make a 9 am meeting. I got in my car, drove to the train station, and realized I had left my wallet at home. I paused for a second and decided I would attempt to brave the day with no ID, no cash, and no credit cards. Although it’s not as ambitious as living for a day on Bitcoin, I figured I could take advantage of the investments made by Apple, Google, PayPal, and others into the mobile payments ecosystem. Armed with my Android phone, I set out to see how easy it would be to have independence from my wallet. Fortunately for my experiment, I switched a few weeks ago from Windows Mobile, where my options would have been even more limited.

I knew parking wouldn’t be a problem as our New Jersey town had implemented an app-based mobile payment platform over a year ago. I’ve enjoyed the convenience of it already daily. Similarly, I had planned to stop at Starbucks where I have been using mobile payments for a while now. The Starbucks app has yet to let me down, even though it uses a digital barcode and a point-of-sale scanner, which seems antiquated in a world where Near Field Communication (NFC) is how Apple and Google promise to reduce “friction.”  Next was the train. While I complain a lot about NJ Transit, their app allows for both digital daily tickets and monthly passes. That simplifies the need to buy a ticket in advance and avoids the surcharge for buying a ticket on the train.

At first it seemed like everything was going great. Then lunchtime hit. I looked around our office at Techonomy and I was alone. The team was either taking a longer weekend, on vacation, or working from home. Then it hit me—Seamless! For those who are not familiar, Seamless is an amazing online ordering platform where you can get just about any cuisine delivered. I logged into my account and realized that I couldn’t get food delivered with enough time for me to get to my next meeting. So, I walked out of my building, in search of lunch that I could buy with my phone. After a failed attempt at a national convenience store chain, I hit Duane Reade, where I was able to grab a bottle of water and a granola bar and pay with my Google Wallet. It took two tries, but the cashier and I eventually figured out how to complete the transaction. Without my Metrocard for the subway, I then summoned an Uber and got to my Midtown meeting with time to spare. So continuing my quest for a meal, I ventured in and out of a half dozen national and local lunch spots. I inspected each window and cash register looking for some indication that they accepted mobile payments. But no such luck. They didn’t even accept the much touted Apple Pay. I tried searching online from my phone for a directory that listed places that accepted mobile payments but I couldn’t find anything.

Following my meeting, I took an Uber to the train station and am now thankfully back on NJ Transit heading home to my wallet. While there might have been alternative ways to get through the day (including heading to a physical bank branch and withdrawing paper money, after giving them my Social Security number, date of birth, home address, and account PIN), this experiment showed me that we are still a long way from a society with ubiquitous mobile payments. While I was able to cobble together a few proprietary apps and Google Wallet, it will take greater merchant adoption and a much simpler consumer experience before I will feel comfortable routinely leaving the cash and plastic at home.

Now, I just pray that my battery lasts another hour or so!

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Vitals Aims to Be the Priceline of American Healthcare http://techonomy.com/2015/07/vitals-aims-to-be-the-priceline-of-american-healthcare/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/vitals-aims-to-be-the-priceline-of-american-healthcare/#comments Wed, 01 Jul 2015 15:59:22 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22140 Entrepreneur Mitch Rothschild says he has always followed a simple philosophy: Determine where a gap exists and launch a business to fill it. He thought information was seriously lacking in healthcare, for both patients and service providers. So he founded Vitals in 2007 to offer a suite of information and analytics tools to help consumers, providers, and health plans better track healthcare prices and quality. Today he serves as the company's executive chairman. Each month, some of Vitals' 10 million users perform 250,000 searches at Vitals.com, seeking information about the U.S. healthcare system, where they can browse 5 million user reviews of about 890,000 medical practitioners. In simple terms, Vitals hopes to be a Priceline of sorts for an industry in which costs can be opaque and consumers often feel powerless.

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(Image via Vitals)

(Image via Vitals)

Entrepreneur Mitch Rothschild says he has always followed a simple philosophy: Determine where a gap exists and launch a business to fill it. He thought information was seriously lacking in healthcare, for both patients and service providers. So he founded Vitals in 2007 to offer a suite of information and analytics tools to help consumers, providers, and health plans better track healthcare prices and quality. Today he serves as the company’s executive chairman.

Each month, some of Vitals’ 10 million users perform 250,000 searches at Vitals.com, seeking information about the U.S. healthcare system, where they can browse 5 million user reviews of about 890,000 medical practitioners. Vitals’ business-focused software-as-a-service side meanwhile offers Web tools and analytics for healthcare providers, helping them improve workflow, attract customers, and foster loyalty. Finally, Vitals provides a platform for health insurers to connect with patients, steering them, it says, to cost-effective, quality care.

In simple terms, Vitals hopes to be a Priceline of sorts for an industry in which costs can be opaque and consumers often feel powerless. “We hope to bring price transparency to healthcare,” says Rothschild. “In the process, we want to align the interests of health plans and their customers.”

At Vitals’ heart is what Rothschild calls “intelligent information,” made possible by search technology, which he calls the “alchemy of our age.”

To arm people with knowledge to help them make sound medical-care decisions, Vitals first mapped the U.S. healthcare system, creating a taxonomy of hospitals and medical-care providers. It pulled data from state and federal databases—such as those at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lists such as New York Magazine’s annual ranking of top doctors, and a host of other sources.

Vitals then developed algorithms to match patients with providers. Users can find ratings for doctors (and their staff—receptionists come in for some tough criticism on Vitals, something Rothschild says is useful because it speaks to the way offices function), track wait times, and learn about outcome and mortality rates. These ratings are not unlike those at Amazon and Yelp. With approximately 900,000 providers in the U.S. healthcare system—and 1.3 billion patient visits a year, according to the CDC—there’s plenty of room for the database to grow.

“Healthcare providers don’t have strong consumer brands, and they’re not great at marketing their strengths,” understates Rothschild. “Their customers don’t tend to have emotional connections with them.” So Vitals developed a suite of services for providers—from monitoring and managing their reputations to attracting patients and facilitating workflow—that they could use to improve the consumer experience and forge greater loyalty. In return, Vitals gains access to more data.

“We became a sort of a front door to the Web for them,” says Rothschild. “They don’t know how to do doctor finders or create online appointment systems. Consumer sites such as Orbitz and OpenTable discovered long ago how to leverage data to create a fluid and easy-to-use experience. But healthcare is 10 years behind everybody else.”

What sets the industry apart from others, said Rothschild, is that people have to “log in” any time they’re using it. A person searching online to find a doctor or to learn about an ailment typically leaves a trail that can be picked up when they make an appointment, receive treatment, or file an insurance claim. This stands in contrast to a consumer who may shop at a brick-and-mortar store and later buy at Amazon (or vice versa), leaving one phase of the transaction untraceable.

“It’s a closed loop,” said Rothschild, “one we realized offered amazing potential. Healthcare is a quirky industry. We understand it.” Vitals aims to increase the percentage of people who shop online for healthcare care, today only about 2 percent.

People who use Vitals’ SmartShopper system get a cash incentive to comparison shop for healthcare. For anything from a blood test to major surgery the patient can research cost and quality ratings for various providers. The absurd price disparities in American healthcare are among its worst and weirdest features. For example, a brain MRI ranges from $209 to $5,560, according to Vitals. A mammogram could be $23—or $1,929. A patient whose insurer is a Vitals partner is eligible for a rebate based on the amount saved by selecting a procedure that is cheaper than similar offerings. Obviously such a system has perils, if lower costs accompany less-rigorous medical procedures. But Rothschild insists his system does not compromise quality.

The company claims that in 2014, every $1 SmartShopper paid to patients generated savings of more than $8 for partner health plans. The largest savings were related to colonoscopies, MRIs, and physical therapy. Overall in 2014, Vitals says it saved $10.7 million in procedure costs for its partners. It paid $1.3 million in cash incentives to 16,076 patients, an average of about $83 each.

Sounds good so far. But Vitals’ approach has its critics. Niam Yaraghi, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation, questions the effectiveness of such an approach. “Transparency is the building block of a competitive market,” he said. “But what works in most markets doesn’t apply to healthcare, because it isn’t truly competitive. Patients aren’t customers in the common sense of the word, and don’t have much real choice. More importantly, they have very little expertise to judge or evaluate the quality of medical services when they attempt to do so. Reviews based on what other patients have seen or felt don’t necessarily reflect the real quality of care.”

I asked Rothschild to respond. “Choice is what creates markets,” he said, emphatically. “Providing relevant, accurate cost and quality information about providers allows patients to make intelligent, informed, competitive decisions. Higher-priced providers will need to lower costs to be competitive. Poorly rated providers will need to up their game. That is the definition of a competitive market. Shame on those who choose to measure progress in this area on a lofty, idealistic view of markets. Just because the current state is not perfect, it doesn’t mean progress is lacking. The last two years have seen major strides—health plans opening up [about] out-of-pocket costs to consumers in advance of care; millions of patient ratings being collected and viewed; surgical societies posting outcome measures of their members; and free-standing medical facilities charging way less than their hospital counterparts for comparable quality services. Instead of cursing the darkness, industry watchers should be looking at all the candles that are being lit.”

Services such as Vitals may make sense for some groups but not for others—and it may be tied to income level, education, and location. It’s clear most consumers are anxious to use the Web to research big-ticket purchases, vacations, etc. Many of us get specialist referrals from primary care physicians we trust. But not everybody has such a longstanding relationship. This may be especially true in regions that are not densely populated, where options are fewer. Another group that might benefit are those who go in and out of having insurance because of job volatility or other issues in their lives, and thus who don’t build steady relationships with medical practitioners they can turn to for advice.

Vitals doesn’t advertise, depending instead on user evangelism for growth. One hurdle, said Rothschild, is that looking for a doctor isn’t as appealing as searching for a cheap flight or a hotel—things people look forward to doing. To create a positive user experience and nurture its brand, Vitals seeks to mimic the look and feel of top consumer sites. “We serve as a sort of traffic cop in the healthcare system,” said Rothschild. “And we’re serious about being America’s healthcare brand.”

Vitals seems thus far to be charting a successful course, and to offer something of value. But it may be a long time before its numbers get big enough to be game-changing in American healthcare.

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Government Infecting Itself with Entrepreneurial Spirit http://techonomy.com/2015/07/government-infecting-itself-with-entrepreneurial-spirit/ http://techonomy.com/2015/07/government-infecting-itself-with-entrepreneurial-spirit/#comments Wed, 01 Jul 2015 13:29:30 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22168 One of the many phrases with which we’ve all become familiar, certainly if we live or spend any time around Washington, is that government needs to operate more like a business. And while that’s an overly simplistic aphorism that doesn’t take into account any number of things (are you familiar with the failure rate for most new businesses?!), most of the people who attended our first Techonomy Policy event last month in DC would agree that there are certainly any number of lessons government can learn from its corporate brethren. Enter the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program. Started in 2012 by then-CTO of HHS, Todd Park, the program recruits external talent to partner with internal HHS teams on high-priority projects for about a year.

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(Image via HHS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program)

(Image via HHS Entrepreneurs-in-Residence program)

One of the many phrases with which we’ve all become familiar, certainly if we live or spend any time around Washington, is that government needs to operate more like a business.

And while that’s an overly simplistic aphorism that doesn’t take into account any number of things (are you familiar with the failure rate for most new businesses?!), most of the people who attended our first Techonomy Policy event last month in DC would agree that there are certainly any number of lessons government can learn from its corporate brethren.

Enter the Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) program. Started in 2012 by then-CTO of HHS, Todd Park, the program recruits external talent to partner with internal HHS teams on high-priority projects for about a year.

Let’s say you’re working at any of the agencies that make up HHS and you’ve got a project or a problem you want to tackle, and you know enough to realize you’re missing some crucial skillset to getting it done. Your team applies to the EIR program and, once accepted as Internal Entrepreneurs, program staff recruit an External Entrepreneur that meets your needs—whether it’s a software engineer, an expert in human-centered design, or a specialist in shipping logistics. The Internal and External Entrepreneurs work together for 13-months and, depending on the state of the project and other factors, the EIR may continue on or leave at the end of that period.

The goal of the program is two-fold: first and foremost, for each project to succeed, and, second, for the entrepreneurs to leave behind a legacy of innovation at HHS.

Infecting them, if you will.

Since 2012, 13 project teams have participated in the program, including a total of 61 career HHS staff and 15 EIRs.

One project is modernizing the paper-based system for tracking organs in the National Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network overseen by the Health Resources and Services Administration. An EIR developed a prototype (including a tablet, scanner, and hand-held printer) within 6 months and tested it on 194 organ procurements in five states.

As part of another project for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), an EIR with experience in agile and open-source software development created a prototype for new, flexible architecture and APIs for the CMS National Plan and Provider Enumeration System in 9 months. CMS estimates that the EIR completed the work in half the time and at one-thirtieth of the cost of the traditional approach of hiring outside contractors.

Currently HHS is recruiting for three projects:

  • The Food and Drug Administration seeks an EIR with demonstrated leadership experience in developing and implementing complex technology solutions involving multiple stakeholders to create a big data environment composed of aggregated datasets from new drug applications, electronic medical records, wearable technologies, and social media networks.
  • The CMS Center for Program Integrity seeks an EIR with experience analyzing and gathering business requirements for IT systems involving multiple stakeholders, to create an information technology solution that will give healthcare providers direct access to information about Medicare claims and billing.
  • The CMS Office of Enterprise Data and Analytics seeks an Associate EIR with Java development experience to transform a prototype, for the next generation of CMS Blue Button service, to an enterprise-class platform that can scale to support millions of beneficiaries.

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Preparing Ourselves for a Fully-Automated Future http://techonomy.com/2015/06/preparing-ourselves-for-a-fully-automated-future/ http://techonomy.com/2015/06/preparing-ourselves-for-a-fully-automated-future/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 18:13:58 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22161 As technology forges ahead, more of our world is becoming automated, increasingly resembling the futuristic settings that were once only the domain of science fiction. This means a significant change in the way tomorrow’s innovators will design new products: it won’t just be a matter of human users interacting with objects, but also of objects interacting with their users. Moreover, many people have anxieties about robots and other “smart” objects—usually that they’ll gain sentience, turn evil, and try to exterminate the human race.

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As technology forges ahead, more of our world is becoming automated, increasingly resembling the futuristic settings that were once only the domain of science fiction. This means a significant change in the way tomorrow’s innovators will design new products: it won’t just be a matter of human users interacting with objects, but also of objects interacting with their users. Moreover, many people have anxieties about robots and other “smart” objects—usually that they’ll gain sentience, turn evil, and try to exterminate the human race.

With the automotive industry’s continued exploration of fully autonomous vehicles, the time has come to reexamine automation’s social and psychological effects. At this year’s “Further with Ford” trend conference in Palo Alto, Techonomy CEO David Kirkpatrick moderated a discussion on the Automation Effect, exploring the cultural significance of automation as well as how automation will shape the future. “Our children’s stories are full of the perils and warnings of what it means to bring things to life. But it’s also the case that as human beings, we are absolutely and endlessly fascinated with what it would mean to do that,” said Intel’s Genevieve Bell, who spoke on the June 24 panel. Other speakers included Dr. Ken Washington of the Ford Motor Company and Jeevan Kalanithi of 3D Robotics.

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Google’s Fail of a Ramadan App http://techonomy.com/2015/06/googles-fail-of-a-ramadan-app/ http://techonomy.com/2015/06/googles-fail-of-a-ramadan-app/#comments Tue, 30 Jun 2015 14:27:58 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22142 Earlier this month Google launched a “Ramadan Companion App.” As a Muslim who works in marketing strategy and social media, who has consulted on a number of Muslim-focused marketing projects, this seemed to me like it could be an exciting development. As far as I know, Google has not previously reached out specifically to the global Muslim community. I love apps and I’m always excited to see what’s new and hot and cool. Plus Ramadan was starting. Initial response to Google's app on Facebook was positive and there was a bunch of “attaboy’ing” on community posts saying, "Oh look, Google’s finally paying attention to Muslims." Sad to say, this euphoria was short lived.

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(Image via Google Arabia)

(Image via Google Arabia)

Earlier this month Google launched a “Ramadan Companion App.” As a Muslim who works in marketing strategy and social media, who has consulted on a number of Muslim-focused marketing projects, this seemed to me like it could be an exciting development. As far as I know, Google has not previously reached out specifically to the global Muslim community.

I love apps and I’m always excited to see what’s new and hot and cool. Plus Ramadan was starting.

Ramadan, if you’re unaware, is a 30-day cycle of fasts from sunrise to sunset. It’s a little daunting, and I could certainly use a little help and encouragement, especially in a year like this one, where the long days make these some of the longest fasts ever—but more on that in a second.

Initial response to Google’s app on Facebook was positive and there was a bunch of “attaboy’ing” on community posts saying, “Oh look, Google’s finally paying attention to Muslims.” Sad to say, this euphoria was short lived.

As far as apps go—it’s less than an app. It’s merely a thrown-together version of a feed aggregator with very limited content and no useful Google or social integration. I know from my own strategy work that with a little effort it’s possible to build good looking and useful apps that are actually useful. For example, you can design multi-channel social content aggregators that put, for example, YouTube videos in one column, tweets in another, blog posts and corporate content in a third, and other cool content in a fourth.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 6.54.56 PM

App content accessed from the UAE (left) and the U.S.

This “app,” by contrast, is simply an aggregator with four categories: “all,” food, entertainment, and planning. It’s a mishmash of useless and uselessly amusing information, instead of providing links to related or helpful content. At launch it had very little content, and as of today, the bulk of the content is difficult to find useful or engaging.

I logged in here in New York, and had a buddy take a look in Dubai. The illustration shows the two homepage versions we found. Though it has categories for “planning” and “food,” it didn’t allow me to find when I could eat and when I couldn’t, prayer places, or even relevant local places to eat. Mostly it seems to be a useless directory of content, pulled from YouTube.

To myself and a number of Muslim peers I’ve spoken with, this is not just useless, it’s insulting. It feels like Google hired a cultural anthropologist to build an app that is an academic exercise in patting themselves on the back.

That’s just sad.

Let me explain why Ramadan matters so much. It’s a month on the Islamic calendar based on lunar cycles (somewhat like the Jewish calendar). It’s also the holiest month of the entire year.

5 PillarsWhy is it holy? Well, for starters, it’s the month where the Quran was revealed to prophet Muhammed. It’s the month when the prophet migrated from Mecca to Medina (Hijrah), which is when we started our lunar calendar. And it’s the month where we get to fulfill two of the five pillars of the religion simultaneously. Those pillars are fasting and almsgiving (zakat). Call it a two-fer.

It’s also one of the most complicated and problematic months for Muslims in terms of scheduling, planning, and needing to know data. Why? Imagine this:

Two houses of worship in different neighborhoods are having evening potlucks that you’re invited to. However, someone you want to see will be at one and your family will be at the other—so you have to figure out where you want to go or whether you can drop by both. Then there’s a 1–2 hour service following each dinner, which is optional but generally a good idea to attend. This kind of thing happens every day for 30 days when you also have to fast from sunrise to sunset. And while it’s not compulsory to show up every day, it’s generally a good idea. Plus it’s the only way to catch up with your friends from that religious group you were in as a kid, and the camp you went to.

That’s Ramadan.

Granted, I’m being a bit facetious. No place would have 30 potlucks in a row.

However, it helps illustrate why Ramadan is complicated for Muslims.

In predominantly Muslim regions, Ramadan is a time of reflection. Shops shut down and you give credence to God (Allah, G-D) for a month. But for many of us in the West it’s an absolutely insane time when you’re trying to honor the Muslim tradition and juggle even more social obligations than you do in a typical week. We’re constantly scheduling, planning, trying to catch up with people we see once or twice a year, and rushing around to attend functions, all while fasting and trying as hard as we can to be pious.

Some well-arranged data could really make things simpler for us.

Instead, Google’s app gives us complicated recipes here in the States (where most people don’t cook or have a lot of time to cook). On the version my friend found in Dubai, the featured content is not even relevant. It’s mostly kids’ videos?! Oh yeah, we also get recommendations to download Google apps.

To get a better sense of the scope of Google’s lost opportunity, consider that all Muslims—regardless of primary sect (Sunni or Shia) or School of Thought (Islam is more complicated than some other religions)—will during this time of year need the same basic data:

  • When to start your fast and when to end it. (The app lists a sunset time, but it’s useless without the dawn.)
  • Where to find mosques, prayer spaces, or the like.
  • Geo-tag check-in options. (People love to check in and say “I’m here!!”)
  • Actual restaurant reviews for the food section, rather than merely giving me a recipe on how to make a samosa. I live in NYC. Who has time to make samosas?
  • Access to moderate religious content. This last one is a BIG overlook by them, as this could have been a really cool way for them to embrace Muslim youth.
  • Games or fun content that is educational. Duh.

Google had an opportunity to catch the attention of an audience that, according to one study in 2007, spent $187 billion annually in the U.S. alone. The figure would be considerably higher now, and internationally would likely be in the trillions.

Next time, I’d advise Google to ask their audience before launching something that simply makes them look silly. In fact, there is a lot of genuinely cool Ramadan technology this year and Medium published a nice article summarizing it.

Happy Ramadan! (Ramadan Mubarak!)

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Will Even a Cholesterol Test Help Identify Cancer? http://techonomy.com/2015/06/will-even-a-cholesterol-test-help-identify-cancer/ http://techonomy.com/2015/06/will-even-a-cholesterol-test-help-identify-cancer/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 14:12:54 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22126 Early detection is one of the most effective ways to beat cancer. That’s why some recent studies, in which scientists detected it in people long before symptoms began, have cancer researchers so excited. The coolest part? These scientists weren’t even looking for signs of cancer. DNA-based detection tools have gotten sensitive enough that it now appears possible to identify precancerous cells. This ability to spot precancerous cells could become pivotal in oncology. It could also be problematic.

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(Image via Shutterstock)

(Image via Shutterstock)

Early detection is one of the most effective ways to beat cancer. That’s why some recent studies, in which scientists detected it in people long before symptoms began, have cancer researchers so excited. The coolest part? These scientists weren’t even looking for signs of cancer. DNA-based detection tools have gotten sensitive enough that it now appears possible to identify precancerous cells.

For years, people thought cancer was like a toggle switch: a good cell goes bad, and flip! Cancer. If that cell divides rapidly enough, and successfully evades the immune system, it grows into a tumor. Newer research has shown that the path from a healthy cell to a cancerous one is actually long and winding. Cells must go through a series of mutations over time, slowly transforming from normal to slightly aberrant to full-on cancer.

Understanding this process creates a major opportunity to spot problem cells and intervene before they make it to the lethal final stage. But making something of that opportunity depends on having technology sensitive enough to find these rogue cells—and coming up with a way to eradicate them without harming their healthy neighbors.

That’s why these new studies have cancer researchers so fired up. A team led by Steven McCarroll from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard took blood samples from more than 12,000 Swedish people and sequenced their genes, looking for molecular indicators linked to schizophrenia. As they analyzed the data, though, they kept bumping into mutations known to be associated with blood cancers. This was puzzling, as none of the people had blood cancer.

McCarroll’s team stuck with it, following health outcomes of these people for as long as seven years. Of the people who went on to develop some form of blood cancer during that time, more than 40 percent were those with the cancer-associated mutations the earlier sequencing had identified. Zooming in on two patients later diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, the team determined that those cancers had developed directly from the precancerous cells spotted in the DNA sequencing project.

Analysis of a different patient group shows the potential for early detection of other types of cancer. As more women choose non-invasive prenatal tests, or DNA-based genetic tests instead of traditional amniocentesis, at least one diagnostic provider has reported that these tests can also pick up early traces of cancer in the mother. (Because the test is based on the mother’s blood, it analyzes DNA from both the baby and the mother.) Sequenom, maker of the MaterniT21 Plus genetic test for fetal chromosomal abnormalities, presented data at a conference earlier this year showing that 26 mothers with these mutations in their DNA were later diagnosed with cancer—most frequently breast, colon, or uterine. Without the red flag from the prenatal tests, it could have been years before these women developed symptoms and were diagnosed.

A large number of companies around the world are developing so-called liquid biopsies, or tests to find pieces of DNA sloughed off from a tumor and circulating in a person’s bloodstream. If they succeed, it could become possible to screen for cancer anytime you have blood drawn for something as simple as a cholesterol test.

This ability to spot precancerous cells could become pivotal in oncology. It could also be problematic. As we’ve learned from long experience with imaging technology like X-rays and MRIs, early detection can lead to expensive, painful, and sometimes unnecessary medical intervention. Whole-body scans, for instance, often detect very small clusters of cancer cells, but long-term studies have shown that the majority of these don’t grow up to be big, scary tumors. Similarly, recent adjustments to mammogram guidelines were based on the realization that the previously recommended yearly tests resulted in too many unnecessary biopsies.

So we need to find a way to spot cancer early, while also being certain that mutations we find are really on the path to becoming a potentially lethal tumor. Then we’ll need the intervention. How will we quarantine these cells? How will we prevent them from acquiring the final mutations that would graduate them to cancer? How will we determine where in the body such cells may be hiding out, when the DNA in the bloodstream could have come from anywhere?

It’ll take a lot of work, and millions of research dollars, to answer these questions. But these new studies suggest the possibility for significant progress in cancer treatment.

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Why Everybody Cares About the Blockchain http://techonomy.com/2015/06/why-everybody-cares-about-the-blockchain/ http://techonomy.com/2015/06/why-everybody-cares-about-the-blockchain/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 16:29:02 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22104 The blockchain is a key part of the system that underlies recordkeeping and transactions for Bitcoin, the virtual currency. But there are much bigger opportunities ahead for this decentralized recordkeeping system. In a session called “Why Everybody Cares About the Blockchain” at the inaugural Techonomy Policy conference earlier this month, panelists emphasized repeatedly that the database holds tremendous promise for an array of uses in banking, conflict tracking, and voting, among other things. It was a wide-ranging discussion, reflecting the vast possibilities proponents see for this contemporary technology. "Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had one universal ledger that we could use for everything and that was accessible to everybody?" said Jerry Brito, executive director of Coin Center. "Well, that is what the blockchain is. It’s a decentralized and open ledger."

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(Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

(Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

The blockchain is a key part of the system that underlies recordkeeping and transactions for Bitcoin, the virtual currency. But there are much bigger opportunities ahead for this decentralized recordkeeping system.

In a session called “Why Everybody Cares About the Blockchain” at the inaugural Techonomy Policy conference earlier this month, panelists emphasized repeatedly that the database holds tremendous promise for an array of uses in banking, conflict tracking, and voting, among other things. It was a wide-ranging discussion, reflecting the vast possibilities proponents see for this contemporary technology.

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had one universal ledger that we could use for everything and that was accessible to everybody?” said Jerry Brito, executive director of Coin Center. “Well, that is what the blockchain is. It’s a decentralized and open ledger.”

The blockchain’s potential, its advocates say, extends across any industry or social activity where recordkeeping takes place. That is just about all industries and activities. Clearly, the blockchain can be used for more than buying and selling. A global network of computer users maintains the blockchain in a manner that might be thought of as like a Google database that’s shared with everyone in the world. Entries are recorded in the ledger and can never be deleted or edited, because the system is by design only sequential. New transactions can be recorded, but old ones can never be erased.

Ledgers and databases today typically are centralized and only their owners can access and make changes to them. They are closed for reasons of security, but this means that the ledger operates solely with the owner’s permission and that only these owners are considered trustworthy. Ledgers underpin much of the information infrastructure that society relies on today, including the banking system, web domains, and identity-management systems like passports or drivers’ licenses.

But with the blockchain, its universal ledger means that direct transfers can occur instantly and without fear of manipulation, because there are no gatekeepers or middlemen to slow them down or meddle with them.

This promise of better recordkeeping enticed the Nasdaq stock exchange, which still keeps record with paper certificates, to give the blockchain a test run. In May, the exchange announced it would use the technology with its private-markets platform, which firms use as they ready for an initial public offering. The companies will be able to trade private shares in a pilot project using a ledger based on the blockchain. If it goes well, the exchange will expand its use to other platforms.

Because the fees to operate it are so low, the blockchain may also be used for banking services for the poor and those without ready access to financial institutions. There are 2.5 billion people without bank accounts worldwide, according to McKinsey, and many of these people are expected in the near future to start using smartphones, as just about all the affluent people in the world have already. Theoretically, these phones could be used to access the blockchain for banking, Brito argued. Cellular phones have already allowed people in the developing world to bypass intermediaries, whether it’s to make and receive payments or to exchange health information. The reception to blockchain and Bitcoin overseas is better than in the United States, where it’s often thought of as “Monopoly money,” because our financial systems are trusted and there is ready access to money.

“The financial infrastructure here works. In other places it doesn’t,” said Brian Forde, director of digital currency at the MIT Media Lab and until recently a technology expert inside the White House. “When you find governments and cities in crisis, you find more reception to this.”

Digital copyrights could also be swapped on the blockchain. A hard copy of a book can be bought and resold today without copyright infringement. Not so with an e-book. Users are barred from transferring digital books to others. The blockchain could allow the easy transfer of digital assets.

“Anything that can be saved digitally can be saved in the blockchain irrevocably,” said Brad Burnham, managing partner of Union Square Ventures, a venture capital firm. “It’s public data managed by a private key,” he added, referring to the blockchain’s sophisticated security features.

But this technology worries regulators because of its potential for misuse in black markets. Recently the U.S. Justice Department successfully prosecuted the founder of the Silk Road, an underground market where illegal goods were bought and sold with bitcoins. He was sentenced to life in prison after his service was used for drug deals and other illegal activity. Partly in response, New York recently issued a law to regulate digital currencies. Firms that use the currency must record personal information from their users so they can no longer operate anonymously. New York’s so-called BitLicense is aimed at preventing money laundering, terrorism funding, and fraud. It also insists that companies operating Bitcoin-based services have at least $2.5 million in backing.

Panelist Burnham calls that a very shortsighted restriction. “I think regulators are prone to reduce risk,” he said. “The real crime is who will get hit? They’re regulating entry because it now costs you $2.5 million to enter the market. That would be a real loss to society. I think the New York law overstepped and they missed a huge opportunity.”

Panelists worry that other states might follow New York’s lead and impose onerous regulations on the flourishing blockchain startup culture that would make it near impossible for new companies to succeed or for the community to grow. With the potential to create an enormous range of new and low-cost services for companies and private individuals, it would be a missed opportunity if this new industry were killed.

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Reflections from Ross on Techonomy Policy 2015 http://techonomy.com/2015/06/reflections-from-ross-on-techonomy-policy-2015/ http://techonomy.com/2015/06/reflections-from-ross-on-techonomy-policy-2015/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 12:54:09 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=22032 “What is it we want to borrow from the tech world? The tech itself? Or a fundamentally different way of approaching problems?” Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, asked in a presentation last week in San Francisco. Her question mirrored one that came up at a number of sessions at our recent Techonomy Policy in Washington, D.C. Techonomy Policy was created to probe ideas at the confluence of tech and policy. We were well aware that there are many events and demands for people’s time in the Beltway, but we wanted to bring something a little different and a little more broad in its approach. The feedback we've gotten from participants suggests we succeeded. People told us it felt like a different kind of conversation for Washington.

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Simone Ross onstage at Techonomy Policy 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

Simone Ross onstage at Techonomy Policy 2015. (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

“What is it we want to borrow from the tech world? The tech itself? Or a fundamentally different way of approaching problems?” Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, asked in a presentation last week in San Francisco. Her question mirrored one that came up at a number of sessions at our recent Techonomy Policy in Washington, D.C.

Techonomy Policy was created to probe ideas at the confluence of tech and policy. We were well aware that there are many events and demands for people’s time in the Beltway, but we wanted to bring something a little different and a little more broad in its approach. The feedback we’ve gotten from participants suggests we succeeded. People told us it felt like a different kind of conversation for Washington. One participant used the word exotic, though I’m pretty sure there were more suits in that one room than all other Techonomy conferences combined. We were joined by speakers from both sides of the aisle—Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska), FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel (D) and Michael O’Rielly (R), and FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, as well as tech leaders such as Vint Cerf of Google, entrepreneur (and bi-partisan donor) Sean Parker, and Steve Case.

The sessions covered everything from the blockchain and Internet of Things to privacy, spectrum, and cyberwar. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to listen to all, but for a brief overview, this 10-minute “Parting Shots” wrap-up presented onstage at the end of the day by McKinsey’s Kate Jackson and Rik Kirkland is a good start.

Videos of many sessions are up and available on our website. Here are some highlights:

  • Arun Sundararajan’s presentation “Policy for an On-Demand Workforce” gives an exhaustive overview of sharing economy services worldwide, and focuses in on the complicated consumer protection and labour issues that are emerging.
  • And last but not least, the closing session on “Technology, Innovation, and American Progress” showcases an important conversation between Senator Cory Booker, Senator Deb Fischer, and Sean Parker. Adrienne Burke’s article “A Bipartisan Call for Policies that Don’t Screw Up Innovation” on Techonomy.com provides a good overview of this session. It is, however, missing one of the funnier quotes of the sessions when Senator Booker told Senator Fischer “Just because I’m a vegan doesn’t mean I can’t butter you up.” (Fischer replied in kind, noting she is a cattle rancher, and that the contrast demonstrates that unlikely allies can work together in the Senate. The two senators have, for example, issued a joint policy resolution on the Internet of Things.)

The intersection between government and tech is one we’ll continue to focus on, not just at our remaining conferences this year, but also when we return to Washington for next year’s Techonomy Policy.

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Government Lacks Strategy for Cyber Attack Response, Say Techonomy Policy Panelists http://techonomy.com/2015/06/government-lacks-strategy-for-cyber-attack-response-say-techonomy-policy-panelists/ http://techonomy.com/2015/06/government-lacks-strategy-for-cyber-attack-response-say-techonomy-policy-panelists/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 12:29:46 +0000 http://techonomy.com/?p=21966 As the Internet spreads its tentacles into every nook of society, attacks are rapidly increasing against individuals, companies, governments, and the very Net infrastructure upon which they all rely. The attackers range from cyber criminals to non-state actors like ISIS and nation-states. But law enforcement, government regulation, and an established military response are not even close to keeping up, said a group of experts at the Techonomy Policy conference in Washington on June 9. Before the advent of the Internet, there were four accepted domains of warfare: land, water, air, and space. Cyber is the fifth, and newest, domain, and by the far the hardest one to patrol, the panelists on a session devoted to "The Militarization of the Internet" agreed.

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From left, Michael Cote, Alan Marcus, Craig Mundie, Shane Harris, and Cory Bennett. (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

From left, Michael Cote, Alan Marcus, Craig Mundie, Shane Harris, and Cory Bennett. (Photo by Rebecca Greenfield)

As the Internet spreads its tentacles into every nook of society, attacks are rapidly increasing against individuals, companies, governments, and the very Net infrastructure upon which they all rely. The attackers range from cyber criminals to non-state actors like ISIS and nation-states. But law enforcement, government regulation, and an established military response are not even close to keeping up, said a group of experts at the Techonomy Policy conference in Washington on June 9.

Before the advent of the Internet, there were four accepted domains of warfare: land, water, air, and space. Cyber is the fifth, and newest, domain, and by the far the hardest one to patrol, the panelists on a session devoted to “The Militarization of the Internet” agreed. “Unfortunately, the Internet doesn’t conveniently stop at our border,” said Craig Mundie, a longtime top executive at Microsoft who has been deeply involved in Federal tech policy efforts. “We don’t have a good way of defining what and when we will do something.”

Mundie, who retired from Microsoft in December,, was joined onstage by Alan Marcus, head of technology sector industries for the World Economic Forum and co-author of “Beyond Cybersecurity: Protecting Your Digital Business,” Michael Cote, who heads Dell SecureWorks, a major information security company, and Shane Harris, the senior national security and intelligence reporter at The Daily Beast and author of “@War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex.” The discussion was moderated by Cory Bennett, cybersecurity reporter at The Hill.

The discussion became even more urgent in the wake of the disastrous hacking of the Federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM) a week earlier. A Chinese group is said to have stolen the records of millions of federal employees, apparently to compile a database of U.S. government workers. The same organization is thought by many experts to also be responsible for the hack of the health insurance company Anthem’s site last year.

It’s unclear how much information was stolen or the purpose the data will be used for in the future. It appears that all federal employees and retirees were affected by the breach, including military veterans and personnel—that’s a total of more than 4 million people. The exact identity of the hacker group has not been established and thus it’s hard to know how to responsd.

Attacking or going after malcontents on the Internet is not simple. It’s difficult to discern the difference between a military, nation-state, or non-state attack, said Marcus from the World Economic Forum, and hence difficult to figure out an appropriate response.

“If you don’t know where the missile came from, where do you send the army?” said Mundie.

Despite the uncertainties, as cyber attacks like the OPM one have grown beyond business-specific attacks, government and law enforcement now have no choice but to present a coordinated approach to them, panelists said.

The Internet, said Mundie, is something like the Wild West where “people feel rightly or wrongly that they can act with impunity,” adding that this state of affairs will continue until law enforcement and government step in. All the panelists agreed that it was the role of law enforcement and the government to patrol the Internet’s byways and not something businesses can address on their own. In any case, laws prohibit cyber vigilantism.

As the severity of attacks rises, the government will have to establish a set of threat levels and responses, said panelists. After Sony released “The Interview,” which offended the North Korean government, its devastating attack on Sony’s corporate infrastructure created a new environment, Harris said.

But the limits and expectations of what kind of response is called for remain undeclared and apparently undecided. “What are the levels of aggression that are necessary before the U.S. attacks a country for cyber attacks?” Harris asked. “If the U.S. banking system is taken down? When a few key sites are?”

“Does Congress have to declare war for the U.S. to attack a country, a rogue state, or individuals, as it must do now before U.S. troops can be involved?” Mundie said.

Because militarization of the Net is so new, no scale of threat levels have yet been created and it is up to each victim how they respond. How many bits and bytes would an attacker have to wipe out for someone to feel compelled to respond?

The response needs to differ depending on whether the attack is caused by a nation-state, rogue country, or a criminal syndicate. “When does the military get involved?” Marcus said. “Again, what threat level and how many bytes would have to be destroyed for troops to respond? If cyber is considered another trade route like the blue waters, do you expect your military to protect cyber?”

It’s also not clear which government agency should be in charge of a response to an attack or which would formulate a policy on the matter. Four years ago, when the World Economic Forum gathered government officials to discuss U.S. cyber policy, it had to gather representatives from 19 separate agencies, Marcus said.

There are glimmerings of progress, nonetheless. Federal agencies are starting to work together on cyber responses to save money and resources. Companies, spooked by the attack against Sony as well as recent attacks against Target, Anthem Healthcare, and others, are also taking security much more seriously than a few years ago. A more sophisticated view of security is developing. Marcus summarized the necessary attitude: “Security isn’t about patches after the fact. It’s about building it into the system.”

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