Get, share, and use information well

Tag: information technology

Back to School

The Labor Day holiday weekend is drawing to a close, and I have finished up my second week of the Fellowship.  Even though the start dates of the semester and my tenure here in DC were the same, I have gotten to notice how much the routines differ between the two environments.  Unlike my academic routine that can adapt and adjust based on the day of the week and the differences between class and no-class, committee and research schedules, things feel distinct here.  There is a bus I catch, most days, between 8:14 and 8:40.  On Wednesdays, there will usually be lunch with the other Fellows.  There are Monday and Thursday morning “huddle” meetings.


However, that is not what I notice the most from the past two weeks.  I admit that I have developed a particular appreciation for my manager.  Each day, there is a specific new thing I have to learn.  How do I send a particular type of email?  What is the formatting for this kind of documentation?  Who do I contact for this activity?  Of course, he’s seen this all before, but it’s my first time.  And it’s not like I have had 3-4 weeks of easing into the situation.  I’ve already worked on international memoranda, and meetings between embassy staff and local representatives, and sat in on planning discussions with the offices of some folks whose name might appear on someone’s bumper sticker.  (But notably, the importance of the office is communicated by an acronym, or even a single letter; the people whose names are used are names I don’t recognize, and even those names go with acronyms.)  The most appropriate phrase for this experience is one that I learned during my first few weeks as an undergrad at MIT: “Drinking from the firehose.”


In that environment, where I’m supposed to come up to speed quickly, it seems like a luxury to have someone check in with me as many as 3-5 times per day to help me with one task or another.  In truth, some of the help sessions seem a bit remedial, teaching me things I do already know.  But he doesn’t know that.  And more importantly, I don’t always know when something I think I know how to do isn’t exactly how this organization does it.  So, I find myself learning to be more patient when being taught, and listening all the way through the lesson.  I even have a guiding document for goals to achieve over the next month or so—distinct from a to-do list of tasks, and an in-process list of assignments.


One of the things that surprises me most about this firehose experience is a new-found empathy and appreciation for the situations that confront new students in the lab.  We’ve been working on SoS and PoSE conceptualizations of ICT use in the SHARK and DOLPHIN and PERCH* streams for years—why are you nodding blankly at me?  Of course.  I’ve been doing it for years.  You just got here.  I just used a bunch of acronyms—shorthand for me, incomprehensible jargon for you.  Even when we get to time for a thesis outline, or a prelim draft, or a set of PhD defense slides, it does take some reminders to recognize that two dozen years of practice and 75 or more iterations don’t get transmitted easily to someone who is experiencing it all new and in an intense, nervous state.


I would like to hope that this lesson comes back to Purdue with me next Fall.  For a new student, or new faculty member, each new item can be part of an overwhelming onslaught of novelty and complexity.  Maybe it won’t stay that way for long, but it feels like that now.  In the senior capstone design course I teach, I remind the students to take the time to capture those initial moments of novelty and first attempts at processing and decision making, because it will be really hard to recall those feelings (and assumptions, and senses of confusion) again later.  I can tell them that, but it was a long time since I have felt that at the level I feel it now.  It’s good to be reminded of what the first few, chaotic weeks of new experience feel like.



Photo of Little Kern Golden Trout by Middleton and Liitschwager (1988), hanging in the C Street entrance lobby of the National Academies.



*Acronym decluttering:

SoS: Systems-of-Systems. or a description of complex systems engineering settings where individual components of an overarching system represent complex systems in their own right (such as individual aircraft, with pilots and co-pilots, in the airspace over Washington, DC while Marine One is traveling across town).

PoSE: Perspectives on Systems Engineering.  This is a course that I developed to teach about four distinct traditions of systems engineering, ranging across systems thinking, cybernetics, component-whole relations, and project management.  Only in its second iteration as a hybrid distance / on-campus course, it is one of the most subscribed courses in Engineering Professional Education (and I’m not even teaching it this semester).

ICT: Information and Communications Technology.  When I first started as a faculty member, most computers had line-by-line display screens in single colors of amber or green; email and word processors and bulletin board chat groups were the most sophisticated information exchange tools available.  Even with all of the changes in capability, it’s still important to recognize that the point of these technologies were, and are, for humans to communicate.

SHARK, DOLPHIN, PERCH:  These are designations of project areas within the research lab, referring to knowledge sharing architectures, information flow delays, and applications to healthcare delivery improvement, respectively.  Check them out at

Communication and Documentation (longer, connection-enhanced version)

Communication and Documentation


[I am feeling a bit like Chuck Lorre, the producer for several extremely popular television series, including the The Big Bang Theory (TBBT).  Chuck has “vanity cards” which appear very briefly at the end of each episode of the shows.  These vanity cards express Chuck’s perspectives, insights, and fevered rants on a variety of topics, and basically act like a blog.  Since I record TBBT quite extensively (any similarities I have to Sheldon Cooper will be, and have been, hotly contested), I have gotten good at pausing the recording to read the card.  Every once in a while, the card makes some reference to censoring, but with a website address to indicate where you can read the uncensored version of the card.  When I first created the “Communication and Documentation” entry for the Indiana Space Grant Consortium Director’s Blog / Notes, it was pointed out that it was long and tangential and wouldn’t appeal to some of the readers.  Well, in Chuck Lorre fashion, I edited the blog entry for that audience, but here’s the full version.  Why?  It’s GROUPER—so, it’s because I can.  And those of you in GROUPER will recognize Karim and know why Shannon and Weaver are important.  So there.  –BSC]


“Document your code!”


This is a lesson I remember from my first computer programming course as a college frosh, now more than 30 years ago.  The language was FORTRAN, and the computer was a PDP 11/44[*] but the lessons were the same.  If you didn’t provide enough comments in your code for the instructor to understand what your logic was intended to accomplish, or what the variables meant, or what that subroutine was for, you got points off.  The essential message was not subtle: no matter how good a job you think you did, you haven’t done the whole job unless you’ve effectively documented it.  Over the past few weeks, I’ve had substantial reminders of the importance of those lessons of communication and documentation.


Since the Affiliates’ Meeting in April, the INSGC staff have been trying to upgrade our processes and activities, and bringing onboard a new set of student interns for the summer.  Part of this comes from our Affiliates’ survey of communications with the Central Office.  Although the overall responses were excellent (from the perspective of demonstrating to NASA that we take our performance seriously and assess it regularly), there were some areas of concern (from the perspective of continuous improvement and achieving a model of excellence).   It’s clear that we could use our website to better advantage, and thus that is a priority for us this summer.  Angie has reported a much more timely and useful set of responses to our requests for reporting, due in part to our more clear presentations of what, when, and why we need those reports to meet our NASA grant reporting and documentation obligations.  Wow… we can get that much more just by being more explicit about what we’re looking for, and how we need to use it?


Effective communication is a tricky thing.  Some people like their documentation “spiced up” a little bit; others just want the immediate facts, in order, with an agenda of what will be covered and how many minutes are associated to each fact.   I just had two conversations this weekend highlighting these challenges.  On Friday, I had dinner with one of my former students, who recently started a new job at a major hospital as a quality engineering and improvement manager.  He noted that some of the physicians and others at the hospital were frustrated with some of his meetings, because they couldn’t see how, or whether, there was a point to the meeting and what they were supposed to recognize and respond to that point.  (Interesting: that was, almost verbatim, one of the comments from our Affiliates’ survey.)  He said that those people would have found our research lab meetings intolerable, but he then took the feedback as an indication to simply write down what he already had in his head and give it a more formal structure as a meeting agenda.   I have had to learn the same lesson in our INSGC Central meetings and those with Dawn and Angie—it’s the agenda that helps focus time and understanding, and improves advanced preparation.


What level of communication works for you?  A friend of mine commented on my software commenting style over the weekend, because I was the only person they’d known who actually used “emotion” and eloquent language structures in their code [†]comments.  On the one hand, there is a big world of language out there, and it’s nice to be able to use it well and communicate richly.  On the other hand, one doesn’t want to turn into Dennis Miller as the color commentator for Monday Night Football, making snarky or esoteric literary references that even your colleagues don’t understand, when all they wanted to say was that it was good that the guy in the blue uniform tackled that guy in the white uniform.  Do people find your style amusing and intelligent, or obscure and elitist?  This is an important question when you’re trying to do public outreach and engagement for the general population.  There are lots of different audiences (faculty and students who receive awards, administrators who want to know effectiveness of campus cost sharing, people who stop you on the street and ask you questions about airspace utilization), and I want to learn how to connect with them all.


Is this where I mention that one of our primary ways of regular communication with our affiliates, partners, and friends is the INSGC Director’s Blog?  I try to put together a new blog entry every month or so, and use it to communicate some of our strategic concerns and general oversight topics.  Great, right?  Except that Dawn told me a few days ago that people don’t look at the blog entries.  (That is the point of website analytics—is anyone actually receiving the message you’re sending?)  Well, if we never updated the blog, that would be the expectation.  Or, if it was assumed that nothing important ever showed up there.  But what if I said that the best way to see what we’re planning for (and why) will show up first, or best, or most explicitly, in that Director’s Blog?  Would that get more visits?  Perhaps, but the goal of the blog is not more visits.  It’s to communicate more effectively with our constituents.


According to information theory (as developed by Bell Laboratory researcher Claude Shannon and MIT professor Norbert Weiner), communication includes a sender, a transmission channel, and a receiver.  There have to be several effective elements of good communication:  the sender has to send a message that is meaningful to the receiver; the channel must be able to support that message; there has to be a minimum of noise or signal loss to distort the message; there has to be enough redundancy of the message so that the receiver understands the intent of the message even if some of it gets lost.  (This seems very tangential to the point of anything else relevant for Space Grant Directors.  However, it’s actually part of my research background and training.  For me, the analysis of communication effectiveness is a social and technical engineering problem, and not just a management or persuasion issue.  Remember, the message is based in part on the context of the sender as well as the context of the receiver.  I’m trying to explain more of my context in a more explicit way.  Any resemblance to Dennis Miller’s football color commentary is accidental.)


So, what next?  Over the rest of the summer, expect additional upgrades to our communications: not just in the use of the available technologies, but in our strategies, messages, and references.  This is a critical point in Space Grant evolution, and I believe that one of the ways that INSGC will succeed in the future is to be a powerful and effective source of communication and documentation of STEM engagement in the State of Indiana.



[*] The specifics here are only to suggest that I have been a geek for a very long time.  Some of you may fondly remember coding in FORTRAN, or even what a PDP is.  If you don’t, just think of it as part of that quaint long-ago time when there were pay phones that people used coins to operate when they weren’t at home to access their permanently wired landline phone.

[†] Yes, these are the sorts of friends I spend my time with.  We talk about styles of software comments, and mathematical models of information exchange in company meetings, and the use of multi-dimensional graphs to understand social dynamics.  Don’t judge.  It works for us.

Bringing Sexy Back (A Post from Natalie)

Instead of just hearing from me, we’re starting to add more posts from more members of the lab, and from more perspectives.  The first is from Natalie Benda, who is now a happy and proud GROUPER alumna.  Here’s an insight from her:


My journey to Purdue begins in Dubuque, IA, “the home of America’s river”. (Yes, that is what the sign says when you cross into my county). When I was younger, I always thought I would end up going into medicine. I come from a family where you were the odd one out if you did not work in the healthcare field. Knowledge of medicine was a pre-requisite for the majority of the conversations that when on at the “grown-ups” table when I was growing up. My parents even met in a hospital where they have worked for a combined total of about sixty years. So, naturally I chose to study engineering in college. That makes sense, right? No? Well, it will eventually.


In high school, when discussing my prospects for secondary education, many times I heard something along the lines of, “You’re good at math and science, you should be an engineer.” It must have stuck at some point, because I started to do my about it. I found the descriptions and coursework for computer, electrical, civil, mechanical and even biomedical engineering, were less than intriguing. I did not want to be in a lab or at a computer all day tinkering away with components.  In the words of my favorite mermaid, I wanted to be where the people were! So, when I came across material on industrial engineering, which emphasized the human aspect of engineering, it was a no-brainer.


With a newly found excitement for my presumed, I began the search for a school. My criteria – get out of Iowa but remain within driving distance, and find a large university with a strong reputation for industrial engineering. The three main schools I looked at were Northwestern, the University of Illinois at Urbana and Purdue. My junior year of high school, my mother and I trekked through a blizzard to visit Purdue on what was probably one of the coldest days of the year. I wish I could give a non-cliché account of all of the wonderful qualities that drew me to Purdue during this first visit, but I can’t. It just felt like the right fit, and I never looked back.


Fast-forward to my sophomore industrial engineering seminar. Although I was excited about getting out of freshman engineering classes and into my chosen discipline, I didn’t feel I had found that extra-curricular activity niche that many of my classmates had. Until one day, our seminar speaker gave a presentation regarding opportunities for industrial engineers in healthcare. Do you remember my rant about being destined to work in healthcare earlier? Is it starting to make a little more sense?


So, after their speech, I approached the speaker to learn more about how I could get involved in healthcare engineering at Purdue. It turned out she was a member of GROUPER. As many of you know, GROUPER works in many areas besides healthcare, however as Dr. C. says it is the new, sexy field for IE’s. This healthcare component was what initially drew me to the lab. What kept me there was breaking down the barriers of traditional engineering and finding ways to connect people and systems through communication. If you can’t tell by my quoting Disney movies and titling my entry after a Justin Timberlake song, I do not like to be subject to societal norms. And GROUPER is far from the norm.


In my two plus years as a GROUPER, I performed many tasks from managing the lab’s schedule to statistical analysis supporting Ph. D. research, and managed to stumble across some research of my own in the process. After organizing the lab’s document library, I found I had a special interest in chronic disease adherence. So, with the help of Dr. C. and the Medication Safety Network of Indiana, I designed a study that analyzed information flow between patients and pharmacists in pharmacy consultations for congestive heart failure medications. I could give you a dry, statistical run-down of the results, but for the sake of the blog I’ll get to the point: the results of the study evidenced the critical part that the pharmacist plays in patient medication safety by capturing potential adverse events the pharmacist was able to detect and prevent. The project is on hold for the moment, but now that we know these potential adverse events are there, couldn’t we find where they stem from? Could we in turn find the root cause of more adverse events that the pharmacist may not be able to prevent and discover ways to build a safer medication system?


Since my graduation from Purdue in December, I have begun a new job in Washington, D.C. as a research assistant for the National Center for Human Factors in Healthcare. In my first few weeks at NCHFH, I have worked on a number of projects that include validating the use of a serious game as an assessment tool (yes, I play video games at work), methods of reducing blood stream infections in dialysis patients and representing communication patterns through #socialnetwork mapping (okay, not that kind of social network, but you get my point).


The project that will be taking up the majority of my time is a classic information alignment problem. We will be working to help software vendors design electronic health record systems that facilitate providers’ ability to achieve “meaningful use” systems. The Office of the National Coordinator is strongly pushing the principles of user centered- and safety enhanced-design. To facilitate this, members of academia have developed a number of tools for the vendors to promote usability. As one could imagine, healthcare professionals, academic researchers and commercial software designers do not exactly speak the same language. Our goal is to help get to a place where these vastly different groups can understand one another and work towards the common goal of designing systems to deliver safer, more effective patient care. Thus far it is turning out to be a fascinating challenge, and my work with GROUPER has left me well prepared.



Your 21st Century Has Arrived

Often, I spend my weekends catching up on work deadlines and writing papers and proposals for our research.  That’s the life of a faculty member, and since I really enjoy my research, that isn’t such a bad thing.  However, I’m also the parent of two twentysomething children (!!!), and I spent time talking with each of them on Saturday afternoon.  At the risk of soundly solely like an overly proud parent, allow me to note some of our conversations.


The first confession I must make is that this is not the first time I’ve looked to my children’s lives for a research discussion.  Their use of information technology during the days of Myspace and Facebook has supported social connections and interactions as they have moved from Madison, WI, to Conyers, GA, back to Madison and their current lives.  I found that interesting, and used their examples to write about the mathematical descriptions of coupling and persistence that support their connections to friends and family.  Yesterday’s conversations were updates on their current activity, of which there is a lot.  (Kyrie is a student at the University of Wisconsin, studying Religious Studies and Art History, with a minor in East Asian Studies.  Piers is a musician studying audio engineering at SAE in Oxford, UK, and is also known as the ambient electronica artist, Mr. Squirrel.) 


My first conversation was with Kyrie, who was telling me about her sports and academics (not in that order; allow me a bit of literary license).  Dad, can you help me go to the Fencing Championships?  She took up fencing as a frosh, and competes with the fencing club.  The electronic scoring that counts touches relies on signals from the metal blade to the metalized fabric in the fencing fabric.  (Those of you upset about the lack of a jet-pack and cool-looking sci-fi clothing from your 1950’s movies, you need look no further than an athletic locker room to see where your space age clothing went.)  Actually, more of our conversation focused on her excitement about ideas for an undergraduate research thesis topic… on the use of religious themes in a variety of Japanese video games.  In the same way that grudging acceptance of photography in the 19th Century led to a field of art and art criticism of the photographic medium, and the slow respect given to movies in the 20th Century now has the support of departments of film studies, Kyrie is interested in the emerging place of video games as an art and entertainment medium in the 21st Century.  (There is an exhibit on the art of video games at the Smithsonian, with a symposium that she wants to attend in May.  Dad, can you help me get there?)   We were talking about mandalas and reinterpretations of Okinawan folk dances and combinations of Shinto and Buddhist philosophies… in the characters of Final Fantasy X, a game we enjoyed playing together a few years ago.  But today, she’s talking about how software is enabling exploration of religious themes, and abstract art forms, and giving new life to history… while we’re both talking to each other on our stylish, wireless smartphone devices.  Okay… yes, I had an earpiece and microphone hooked to my ear, linked to the iPhone in my pocket, talking to my daughter while putting my bicycle in my car.  Satellite and cellular communications, wireless information technologies, while we consider visual digital culture expressed on game platforms with more computing power than designed and built and flew Apollo missions to the moon.     


Later that afternoon, I went to my laptop, sent Piers a short message on Facebook chat, and he called me on Skype from the room he’s renting in a house in Oxford.   Friends are trying to get him to go out to the pubs on a Saturday night, as a break from studying audio production signal processing and engineering acoustics.  No, I’m going to stay in and talk to my Dad in America.  OK, that’s cool.  Piers is having a great time, and we’re talking about his explorations and appreciation of 1970s funk pieces, and classic jazz, and the new blog he’s been asked to write on music appreciation (for once, I’m leading my kids on a social network technology).  He’s got an interesting idea for a BS thesis, to capture and integrate (and thereby honor) the songs of various indigenous peoples as a way of reminding us of the commonality of music and human connection to rhythmic expression.  (There was a bit of discussion about acoustic analysis of Stonehenge, and how one of its primary roles may have been as a resonant amphitheater—and a ballin’ party zone!  Yes, you can download an app for that, suggesting that there are cool information technology implementations of archaeology as well.)  So, we’re having a great conversation about the history of technology and society, ranging from prehistorical and Roman-era Britain (there’s a nice production studio in Bath) to the astronomical projections done in Mali that allegedly presaged the discovery of Sirius-B hundreds of years ago.  Models and debates about how items might have been used, seemingly dismissed years ago, only to be readdressed with new technologies and knowledge.  New inquiries and instruments can change our understanding of the world we thought we knew?  How primitive will others think of our keyboards and our external communication devices, just as we think of the crank telephone hanging on my wall, which I was showing him by moving my laptop.  Oh, that’s right.  Skype is a videophone.  We’re using IP addressing and 802.11 wireless connectivity for me to comment on his hairstyle and give him “thumbs up” on his recent successes.  But the phone isn’t there for making calls.  It’s art, and it’s craftsmanship, and it’s a reminder that what we are really about is information and communication and experience that we have, and share, and use in our interactions with others.


I used to be afraid of a dystopian view of my life, based on the sadness expressed in the song, Cat’s in the Cradle by Harry Chapin.  However, those conversations gave me a very positive sense of what and how my kids share my experience and sense of the world.   Despite not being engineers, both of my kids are demonstrating passionate integration of society and technology, of art and analysis.  We talk using technologies that were the science fiction of Star Trek, about entertainment media that allow us to bring together drums and voices and visual patterns from Edo to Edinburgh, acoustics for the Picts and Sirius binary star transits for the Dogons.  All are braided together, and a curious mind using tools in their hand and lap that cross disciplines and integrates perspectives to create a beautiful tapestry of understanding, giving lie to our worst assumptions about our limits or failures.  However, none of this is a given.  I find it a precious wonder to have had those conversations.  Those opportunities for sharing stretch my brain just a bit more, listening to the ones whom I once fed strained peas now feed me ideas and examples for research in socio-technical systems engineering.  


I didn’t expect the doorbell to ring, announcing the delivery of that 21st Century I ordered.  It didn’t come packaged as I expected it.  And it doesn’t come free.  But it certainly is a package I want to continue unwrapping and trying and understanding.