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February 05 2014

Bluetooth Low Energy: what do we do with you?

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” as Jeff Hammerbacher said. And it’s not just data analysts: it’s creeping into every aspect of technology, including hardware.

One of the more exciting developments of the past year is Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE). Unfortunately, the application that I’ve seen discussed most frequently is user tracking: devices in stores can use the BLE device in your cell phone to tell exactly where you’re standing, what you’re looking at, and target ads, offer you deals, send over salespeople, and so on.

Color me uninterested. I don’t really care about the spyware: if Needless Markup wants to know what I’m looking at, they can send someone out on the floor to look. But I am dismayed by the lack of imagination around what we can do with BLE.

If you look around, you’ll find some interesting hints about what we might be able to to with BLE:

  • The Tile app is a tag for a keychain that uses BLE to locate lost keys. In a conversation, O’Reilly author Matthew Gast suggested that you could extend the concept to develop a collar that would help to locate missing pets. That scenario requires some kind of accessibility to neighbor’s networks, but for a pie-in-the-sky discussion, it’s a good idea.
  • At ORDCamp last weekend, I was in a wide-ranging conversation about smart washing machines, wearable computing, and the like. Someone mentioned that clothes could have tags that would let the washer know when the settings were wrong, or when you had the colors mixed. This is something you could implement with BLE. Water wouldn’t be a problem since you could seal the entire device, including the battery; heat might be an issue. But again, we’re talking imagination, what might be possible. We can solve the engineering problems later.
  • One proposal for our Solid conference involved tagging garbage cans with BLE devices, to help automate garbage collection. I want to see the demo, particularly if it includes garbage trucks in a conference hall.

Why the dearth of imagination in the press and among most of the people talking about the next generation of Bluetooth apps? Why can’t we get beyond different flavors of spyware? And when BLE is widely deployed, will we see devices that at least try to improve our quality of life, or will the best minds of our generation still be pitching ads?

Come to Solid to be part of that discussion. I’m sure our future will be full of spyware. But we can at least brainstorm other more interesting, more useful, more fun applications of low-power wireless computing.

January 13 2014

Four short links: 14 January 2014

  1. LayoutIt — drag-and-drop design using Bootstrap components. These tools are proliferating, as the standard design frameworks like Bootstrap make them possible. There’s unsustainable complexity in building web sites today, which means something will give: the web will lose to something, the technology forming the web will iterate, or the tools for the web will improve.
  2. How Silicon Valley Became The Man — I’m fascinated by the sudden spike in anti-corporate tension in SF. This interview gives me some useful vocabulary: New Communalists and the New Left. And two more books to read …
  3. USB Rubber Ducky — USB dongle that pretends to be a keyboard and types out your text REALLY fast. (via Root a Mac in 10s or Less)
  4. Simple Git Workflow is Simple — Atlassian producing videos on how to use git, good starting point for new code drones.

October 23 2013

Four short links: 23 October 2013

  1. Expecting Better — an economist runs the numbers on the actual consequences of various lifestyle choices during pregnancy. (via sciblogs)
  2. Business as Usual in the Innovation Industry — the only thing worse than business plan contests for startups is innovation wankfests for small arts groups. [T]he vast majority of small and mid-sized arts organizations are not broken so much as they are in a constant state of precarity that could largely be addressed by reliable funding streams to support general operations and less onerous grant application processes that would allow them to focus more on delivering services and less on raising money. Hear! (via Courtney Johnston)
  3. Driverless Cars Are Further Away Than You Think (MIT Technology Review) — nice roundup of potential benefits. experiments involving modified road vehicles conducted by Volvo and others in 2011 suggest that having vehicles travel in high-speed automated “platoons,” thereby reducing aerodynamic drag, could lower fuel consumption by 20 percent. And an engineering study published last year concluded that automation could theoretically allow nearly four times as many cars to travel on a given stretch of highway.
  4. Portraits of Robots at Work and Play (The Atlantic) — photo-essay that is full of boggle. (via BoingBoing)

September 10 2013

Stanford va investir dans les sociétés créées par ses étudiants - LeMonde.fr

Stanford va investir dans les sociétés créées par ses étudiants - LeMonde.fr
http://abonnes.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2013/09/09/stanford-va-investir-dans-les-societes-creees-par-ses-etudiants_3473

Stanford s’est doté d’un fonds d’#investissement pour soutenir les jeunes pousses de ses étudiants. Intérêt financier pour l’école ou transformation de l’école en école de entrepreneuriat au détriment de l’enseignement et de la recherche ? Tags : internetactu2net internetactu fing éducation #innovation investissement (...)

#éducation #financement #université

September 07 2013

Les sociétés qui délocalisent innovent plus - Vox.eu

Les sociétés qui délocalisent innovent plus - Vox.eu
http://www.voxeu.org/article/offshoring-firms-innovate-more-evidence-european-manufacturers

Les délocalisations européennes concernent surtout les emplois en usine, mais beaucoup s’inquiètent que les fonctions innovantes suivent. Pourtant, soulignent les économistes Bernhard Dachs, Bernd Ebersberger, Steffen Kinkel et Oliver Som, les sociétés qui délocalisent emploient plus de personnes en R&D et en conception, lancent plus fréquemment de nouveaux produits et investissent plus dans les technologies que celles qui ne délocalisent pas. Bref, la crainte que la #délocalisation nuise à (...)

#innovation #économie

August 28 2013

La prochaine vague de startups sera fondée sur la sécurité - Technology Review

La prochaine vague de startups sera fondée sur la sécurité - Technology Review
http://www.technologyreview.com/view/518771/the-coming-wave-of-security-startups

Les menaces d’intrusion se démultiplient alors que la cybersécurité n’est jamais résolue, estime l’investisseur David Cowan. Pour lui l’avenir est à la sécurité et notamment à la sécurité du l’informatique en nuage qui est pour l’instant l’une des zones les moins matures du cloud computing... Et qui est prometteur, parce que ces alternatives seront faciles à déployer et à gérer, plus facilement mises à jour... Mieux, les information de connexion elles-mêmes seront demain les signaux les plus efficaces (...)

#cloudcomputing #securite #innovation

August 26 2013

La gouvernance des technologies de l'information tue-t-elle l'innovation ? - Harvard Business…

La gouvernance des technologies de l’information tue-t-elle l’#innovation ? - Harvard Business Review
http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2013/08/it_governance_is_killing_innov.html

Des recherches récentes ont montré que le travail est devenu de plus en plus interdépendant : les employés ont besoin d’avoir recours à de plus en plus de leurs collègues et partenaires pour accomplir leur travail. Ce qui implique bien sûr un nouvel environnement de travail... Pourtant pour les entreprises, il est difficile d’allouer des investissements proportionnels à ces nouveaux environnements de travail dont chacun à besoin. Les #DSi (Directeurs des systèmes informatiques) ne manquent pas (...)

August 24 2013

Firms in 'creative' industries are no more likely to innovate than are firms in other sectors.…

Firms in ’creative’ industries are no more likely to innovate than are firms in other sectors. However, we find a considerably stronger correlation between creative occupations and innovation. The policy focus should therefore be on creative workers, regardless of the sector in which they work.

Also, creative industries firms located in urban areas are no more innovative than those located elsewhere - but firms in urban areas in sectors employing more creative workers are particularly likely to innovate.

http://www.voxeu.org/article/creativity-cities-and-innovation #innovation #development

August 19 2013

La politique des 20% de temps libre des ingénieurs de google est-elle morte ? - Quartz

La politique des 20% de temps libre des ingénieurs de #google est-elle morte ? - Quartz
http://qz.com/115831/googles-20-time-which-brought-you-gmail-and-adsense-is-now-as-good-as-dead

La possibilité pour les ingénieurs de Google de réserver 20% de leur temps de travail sur un projet personnel n’existe plus, rapporte Christopher Mims pour Quartz. En 2004, Page et Brin estimaient que l’octroi de 20% de temps aux employés pour innover sur leurs projets personnels était l’instrument de la capacité de l’entreprise à innover. Une politique qui a donné naissance à AdSense et Gmail, Google Transit, Google Talk, Google News... Nombre de produits de Google. Mais, petit à petit, la (...)

#management #innovation

August 14 2013

Le petit autocollant qui créé un champ de force contre les moustiques - Wired Design

Le petit autocollant qui créé un champ de force contre les moustiques - Wired Design
http://www.wired.com/design/2013/08/this-little-sticker-works-like-an-anti-mosquito-forcefield/#slideid-184121

Liz Stinson pour Wired revient sur Kite, un petit patch qui émet un manteau de composé chimiques qui bloquent la capacité des moustiques à détecter les humains. Révolutionnaire. Tags : fing internetactu2net internetactu santé #innovation

#santé

July 31 2013

On Batteries and Innovation

Lately there’s been a spate of articles about breakthroughs in battery technology. Better batteries are important, for any of a number of reasons: electric cars, smoothing out variations in the power grid, cell phones, and laptops that don’t need to be recharged daily.

All of these nascent technologies are important, but some of them leave me cold, and in a way that seems important. It’s relatively easy to invent new technology, but a lot harder to bring it to market. I’m starting to understand why. The problem isn’t just commercializing a new technology — it’s everything that surrounds that new technology.

Take an article like Battery Breakthrough Offers 30 Times More Power, Charges 1,000 Times Faster. For the purposes of argument, let’s assume that the technology works; I’m not an expert on the chemistry of batteries, so I have no reason to believe that it doesn’t. But then let’s take a step back and think about what a battery does. When you discharge a battery, you’re using a chemical reaction to create electrical current (which is moving electrical charge). When you charge a battery, you’re reversing that reaction: you’re essentially taking the current and putting that back in the battery.

So, if a battery is going to store 30 times as much power and charge 1,000 times faster, that means that the wires that connect to it need to carry 30,000 times more current. (Let’s ignore questions like “faster than what?,” but most batteries I’ve seen take between two and eight hours to charge.) It’s reasonable to assume that a new battery technology might be able to store electrical charge more efficiently, but the charging process is already surprisingly efficient: on the order of 50% to 80%, but possibly much higher for a lithium battery. So improved charging efficiency isn’t going to help much — if charging a battery is already 50% efficient, making it 100% efficient only improves things by a factor of two. How big are the wires for an automobile battery charger? Can you imagine wires big enough to handle thousands of times as much current? I don’t think Apple is going to make any thin, sexy laptops if the charging cable is made from 0000 gauge wire (roughly 1/2 inch thick, capacity of 195 amps at 60 degrees C). And I certainly don’t think, as the article claims, that I’ll be able to jump-start my car with the battery in my cell phone — I don’t have any idea how I’d connect a wire with the current-handling capacity of a jumper cable to any cell phone I’d be willing to carry, nor do I want a phone that turns into an incendiary firebrick when it’s charged, even if I only need to charge it once a year.

Here’s an older article that’s much more in touch with reality: Battery breakthrough could bring electric cars to all. The claims are much more limited: these new batteries deliver 2.5 times as much energy with roughly the same weight as current batteries. But more than that, look at the picture. You don’t get a sense of the scale, but notice that the tabs extending from the batteries (no doubt the electrical contacts) are relatively large in relation to the battery’s body, certainly larger in relation to the battery’s size than the terminal posts on a typical auto battery. And even more, the terminals are flat, which maximizes surface area, which maximizes both heat dissipation (a big issue at high current), and surface area (to transfer power more efficiently). That’s what I like to see, and that’s what makes me think that this is a breakthrough that, while less dramatic, isn’t being over-hyped by irresponsible reporting.

I’m not saying that the problems presented by ultra-high capacity batteries aren’t solvable. I’m sure that the researchers are well aware of the issues. Sadly, I’m not so surprised that the reporters who wrote about the research didn’t understand the issues, resulting in some rather naive claims about what the technology could accomplish. I can imagine that there are ways to distribute current within the batteries that might solve some of the current carrying issues. (For example, high terminal voltages with an internal voltage divider network that distributes current to a huge number of cells). As we used to say in college, “That’s an engineering problem” — but it’s an engineering problem that’s certainly not trivial.

This argument isn’t intended to dump cold water on battery research, nor is it really to complain about the press coverage (though it was relatively uninformed, to put it politely, about the realities of moving electrical charge around). There’s a bigger point here: innovation is hard. It’s not just about the conceptual breakthrough that lets you put 30 times as much charge in one battery, or 64 times as many power-hungry CPUs on one Google Glass frame. It’s about everything else that surrounds the breakthrough: supplying power, dissipating heat, connecting wires, and more. The cost of innovation has plummeted in recent years, and that will allow innovators to focus more on the hard problems and less on peripheral issues like design and manufacturing. But the hard problems remain hard.

July 23 2013

Steve Jobs didn't build that :

Steve Jobs didn’t build that:
http://www.salon.com/2013/07/19/steve_jobs_didnt_build_that
Our #patent law doesn’t promote #innovation, it stifles it by buying into the myth of the “hero inventor”.

“The history of significant innovation [..] is one of incremental improvements generally made by a number of different inventors at roughly the same time. Our patent system, by contrast, is designed for a world in which one inventor of extraordinary skill does something no one else could have done”

July 20 2013

Where Innovation Lives

I sat down with Jon Bruner in New York City this week to talk about where innovation happens. Concentration still seems to matter, even in a networked world, but concentration of what? Minds, money, markets, or manufacturing know-how?

People we mention in this episode include Brady Forrest, Kipp Bradford and Alistair Croll.

Links for things we mention:

By the way, we clearly aren’t the only ones making comparisons between Silicon Valley and Detroit. Seems to be entering the zeitgeist. However, if you are interested in Detroit as a model for the unraveling of a dominant concentration of innovation, pick up a copy of the classic American Odyssey by Robert Conot or the more recent Detroit: An American Autopsy by Charlie LeDuff.

You can subscribe to the O’Reilly Radar podcast through iTunes or SoundCloud, or directly through our podcast’s RSS feed.

July 17 2013

La logique de Google : pourquoi Google fait-il les choses comme il les fait - Guardian.co.uk

La logique de #Google : pourquoi Google fait-il les choses comme il les fait - Guardian.co.uk
http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2013/jul/09/google-android-reader-why?CMP=twt_gu

Michael Mace, auteur de « Cartographier le futur », un livre sur comment créer de meilleurs stratégies d’affaire, s’intéresse à Google et sa logique d’affaire. Pour lui, Google suit une stratégie très différente de la plupart des entreprises. Pour lui, c’est en partie lier à la culture d’#entreprise. Les logiciels web changent en continue et vous ne pouvez pas faire de planification à long terme. Au contraire, il faut de la flexibilité pour évoluer vite. La conception agile est batie dans la fibre et la (...)

#management #innovation

July 04 2013

Engelbart did not set out to invent the tools for whose seminal design he is credited for : he…

#Engelbart did not set out to invent the tools for whose seminal design he is credited for: he started with wide angled #research to establish a conceptual framework with a clear intent. That deep-rooted requirement analysis is what ensured decisive #innovation.
http://worrydream.com/Engelbart
#invention #Xerox #Parc

June 11 2013

Four short links: 10 June 2013

  1. Anatomy of Two Memes — comparing the spread of Gangnam Style to Harlem Shake. Memes are like currencies: you need to balance accessibility (or ‘money supply’) and inflation. Gangnam Style became globally accessible through top-down mainstream sources (High Popularity), but this gave it high social inflation so it wasn’t valuable to share (Low Shareability). However, scale sustained its long term growth. Harlem Shake was not as easily accessible because it was driven more by small communities (Low Popularity), but for the same reason, being less easily accessible, it remained highly valuable (High Shareability). Lack of scale was what made Harlem Shake growth short-term and eventually killed it prematurely. Caution: contains fauxconomics.
  2. Handedness (Github) — determine left or right handedness from pinch gesture.
  3. Innovation Cartography — video of a talk by Richard Jefferson of Cambia’s lens, on the imperative to innovate held at the Skoll World Forum on Social Enterprise. His story of maritime cartography (starts around 5m50s) is awesome.
  4. Statically Recompiling NES Games into Native Executables with LLVM and Go — or “crack for Nat” as I like to translate that title.

May 16 2013

Four short links: 16 May 2013

  1. Australian Filter Scope CreepThe Federal Government has confirmed its financial regulator has started requiring Australian Internet service providers to block websites suspected of providing fraudulent financial opportunities, in a move which appears to also open the door for other government agencies to unilaterally block sites they deem questionable in their own portfolios.
  2. Embedding Actions in Gmail — after years of benign neglect, it’s good to see Gmail worked on again. We’ve said for years that email’s a fertile ground for doing stuff better, and Google seem to have the religion. (see Send Money with Gmail for more).
  3. What Keeps Me Up at Night (Matt Webb) — Matt’s building a business around connected devices. Here he explains why the category could be owned by any of the big players. In times like this I remember Howard Aiken’s advice: Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If it is original you will have to ram it down their throats.
  4. Image Texture Predicts Avian Density and Species Richness (PLOSone) — Surprisingly and interestingly, remotely sensed vegetation structure measures (i.e., image texture) were often better predictors of avian density and species richness than field-measured vegetation structure, and thus show promise as a valuable tool for mapping habitat quality and characterizing biodiversity across broad areas.

April 29 2013

Google Glass and the Future

I just read a Forbes article about Glass, talking about the split between those who are “sure that it is the future of technology, and others who think society will push back against the technology.”

I don’t see this as a dichotomy (and, to be fair, I’m not sure that the author does either). I expect to see both, and I’d like to think a bit more about what these two apparently opposing sides mean.

Push back is inevitable. I hope there’s a significant push back, and that it has some results. Not because I’m a Glass naysayer, but because we, as technology users, are abused so often, and push back so weakly, that it’s not funny. Facebook does something outrageous; a few technorati whine; they add option 1023 to their current highly intertwined 1022 privacy options that have been designed so they can’t be understood or used effectively; and sooner or later, it all dies down. A hundred fifty users have left Facebook, and half a million more have joined. When Apple puts another brick in their walled garden, a few dozen users (myself included) bitch and moan, but does anyone leave? Personally, I’m tired of getting warnings whenever I install software that doesn’t come from the Apple Store (I’ve used the Store exactly twice), and I absolutely expect that a not-too-distant version of OS X users won’t me allow to install software from “untrusted” sources, including software I’ve written. Will there be push back? Probably. Will it be effective? I don’t know; if things go as they are now, I doubt it.

There will be push back against Glass; and that’s a good thing. I think Google, of all the companies out there, is most likely to listen and respond positively. I say that partly because of efforts like the Data Liberation Front, and partly because Eric Schmidt has acknowledged that he finds many aspects of Glass creepy. But going beyond Glass: As a community of users, we need to empower ourselves to push back. We need to be able to push back effectively against Google, but more so against Apple, Facebook, and many other abusers of our data, rather than passively accept the latest intrusion as an inevitability. If Glass does nothing more than teach users that they can push back, and teach large corporations how to respond constructively, it will have accomplished much.

Is Glass the future? Yes; at least, something like Glass is part of the future. As a species, we’re not very good at putting our inventions back into the box. About three years ago, there was a big uptick in interest in augmented reality. You probably remember: Wikitude, Layar, and the rest. You installed those apps on your phone. They’re still there. You never use them (at least, I don’t). The problem with consumer-grade AR up until now has been that it was sort of awkward walking around looking at things through your phone’s screen. (Commercial AR–heads-up displays and the like–is a completely different ball game.) Glass is the first attempt at broadly useful platform for consumer AR; it’s a game changer.

Is it possible that Glass will fail? Sure; I know more failed startups than I can count where the engineers did something really cool, and when they released it, the public said “what is that, and why do you think we’d want it?” Google certainly isn’t immune from that disease, which is endemic to an engineering-driven culture; just think back to Wave. I won’t deny that Google might shelve Glass if they consider unproductive, as they’ve shelved many popular applications. But I believe that Google is playing long-ball here, and thinking far beyond 2014 or 2015. In a conversation about Bitcoin last week, I said that I doubt it will be around in 20 years. But I’m certain we will have some kind of distributed digital currency, and that currency will probably look a lot like Bitcoin. Glass is the same. I have no doubt that something like Glass is part of our future. It’s a first, tentative, and very necessary step into a new generation of user interfaces, a new way of interacting with computing systems and integrating them into our world. We probably won’t wear devices around on our glasses; it may well be surgically implanted. But the future doesn’t happen if you only talk about hypothetical possibilities. Building the future requires concrete innovation, building inconvenient and “creepy” devices that nevertheless point to the next step. And it requires people pushing back against that innovation, to help developers figure out what they really need to build.

Glass will be part of our future, though probably not in its current form. And push back from users will play an essential role in defining the form it will eventually take.

April 26 2013

The makers of hardware innovation

Chris Anderson wrote Makers and went from editor-in-chief of Wired to CEO of 3D Robotics, making his hobby his side job and then making it his main job.

A new executive at Motorola Mobility, a division of Google, said that Google seeks to “googlify” hardware. By that he meant that devices would be inexpensive, if not free, and that the data created or accessed by them would be open. Motorola wants to build a truly hackable cellphone, one that makers might have ideas about what to do with it.

Regular hardware startup meetups, which started in San Francisco and New York, are now held in Boston, Pittsburgh, Austin, Chicago, Dallas and Detroit. I’m sure there are other American cities. Melbourne, Stockholm and Toronto are also organizing hardware meetups. Hardware entrepreneurs want to find each other and learn from each other.

Hardware-oriented incubators and accelerators are launching on both coasts in America, and in China.

The market for personal 3D printers and 3D printing services has really taken off. 3D printer startups continue to launch, and all of them seem to have trouble keeping up with demand. MakerBot is out raising money. Shapeways raised $30 million in a new round of financing announced this week.

Makers are discovering that the Raspberry PI, developed for educational uses, can fit into some interesting commercial niches.

The marketing-friendly phrase, “Internet of Things,” is beginning to mean something, with new boards such as Pinoccio and Electric Imp.

Design software is getting better, and less expensive, if not free, although the developers of TinkerCad announced that they were abandoning it.

And an 11-year old maker, Super Awesome Sylvia, was recognized at the White House Science Fair, exhibiting a watercolor robot that will soon be a kit sold through Evil Mad Science.

“Hardware is the new software” reported Wired and the New York Times. Joi Ito of the MIT Media Lab said it was one of the top trends to watch in 2013.

This year’s Hardware Innovation Workshop, held May 14-15 at the College of San Mateo in San Mateo, Calif., during the week leading up to Maker Faire Bay Area, will provide a deep dive into the new world of hardware startups. You’ll learn what VCs are thinking about hardware startups, which startups got funding and why. You’ll meet dozens of newly formed startups that haven’t launched yet. You’ll also learn from maker case studies and from the founders of hardware incubators.

Among our speakers are:

  • Chris Anderson, CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones
  • Massimo Banzi, co-founder of Arduino
  • Robert Faludi, collaborative strategy leader at Digi International
  • Bunnie Huang, co-founder of Chumby
  • Ben Kaufman, founder and CEO of Quirky
  • Scott Miller, CEO and co-founder of Dragon Innovation
  • Alice Taylor, founder, Makie Lab
  • John Park, COO/GM, AQS
  • Carl Bass, CEO of Autodesk
  • Ted Hall, CEO of ShopBot

Learn more about the Hardware Innovation Workshop. O’Reilly Radar readers can register using the code “RADAR13″ and save $100.

February 21 2013

VA looks to apply innovation to better care and service for veterans

va-header-logova-header-logoThere are few areas as emblematic of a nation’s values than how it treats the veterans of its wars. As improved battlefield care keeps more soldiers alive from injuries that would have been lethal in past wars, more grievously injured veterans survive to come home to the United States.

Upon return, however, the newest veterans face many of the challenges that previous generations have encountered, ranging from re-entering the civilian workforce to rehabilitating broken bodies and treating traumatic brain injuries. As they come home, they are encumbered by more than scars and memories. Their war records are missing. When they apply for benefits, they’re added to a growing backlog of claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). And even as the raw number of claims grows to nearly 900,000, the average time to process them is also rising. According to Aaron Glanz of the Center for Investigative Reporting, veterans now wait an average of 272 days for their claims to be processed, with some dying in the interim.

While new teams and technologies are being deployed to help with the backlog, a recent report (PDF) from the Office of the Inspector General of the Veterans Administration found that new software deployed around the country that was designed to help reduce the backlog was actually adding to it. While high error rates, disorganization and mishandled claims may be traced to issues with training and implementation of the new systems, the transition from paper-based records to a digital system is proving to be difficult and deeply painful to veterans and families applying for benefits. As Andrew McAfee bluntly put it more than two years ago, these kinds of bureaucratic issues aren’t just a problem to be fixed: “they’re a moral stain on the country.”

Given that context, the launch of a new VA innovation center today takes on a different meaning. The scale and gravity of the problems that the VA faces demand true innovation: new ideas, technology or methodologies that challenge and improve upon existing processes and systems, improving the lives of people or the function of the society that they live within.

“When we set out in 2010 to knowingly adopt the ‘I word’, we did so with the full knowledge that there had to be something there,” said Jonah J. Czerwinski, senior advisor to VA Secretary Eric Shinseki and director of the VA Innovation Initiative, in a recent interview. “We chose to define value around four measurable attributes that mean something to taxpayers, veterans, Congressional delegations and staff: access, quality, cost control and customer satisfaction. The hard part was making it real. We focused for the first year on creating a foundation for what we knew had to justify its own existence, including identifying problem areas.”

The new VA Center for Innovation (VACI) is the descendent of the VA’s Innovation Initiative (VAi2), which was launched in 2010. Along with the VACI, the VA announced that it would adopt an innovation fellows program, following the successful example set by the White House, Department of Health and Human Services and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and bring in an “entrepreneur-in-residence.” The new VACI will back 13 new projects from an industry competition, including improvements to prosthetics, automated sterilization, the Blue Button and cochlear implants. The VA also released a report on the VACI’s progress to date.

“We’re delving into new ways of providing audiology at great distances,” said Czerwinski, “delivering video into the home cheaply, with on-demand care, and the first wearable automatic kidney. Skeptics can judge any innovation endeavor by different measures. The question is whether at the end of the cycle if it’s still relevant.”

The rest of my interview with Czerwinski follows, slightly edited for clarity and content.

Why launch an “innovation center?”

Jonah J. Czerwinski: When we started VAi2, our intent was delving into the projects the secretary charged us with achieving. The secretary has big goals: eliminate homelessness, eliminate backlog, increase access to care.

It’s not enough for an organization to create a VC fund. It’s the way in which we structure ourselves and find compelling new ways of solving problems. We had more ways to do that. The reason why we have a center for innovation is not because we need to start innovating — we have been innovating for decades, at local levels. We’ve been disaggregated in different way. We may accomplish objectives but the organization as a whole may not benefit.

We have a cultural mission with the center that’s a little more subtle. It’s not just about funding different areas. It’s about changing from a culture where people are incented to manage problems in perpetuity to one in which people are incented to solve problems. It’s not enough to reduce backlog by a percentage point or the number of re-admissions with an infection. How do you reward someone for eliminating something wholesale?

We want our workforce to be part of that objective, to be part of coming up with those ideas. The innovation competition started in 2009 led to 75 ideas to solve problems. We have projects in almost every state now.

How will innovation help with the claims backlog?

Jonah J. Czerwinski: It’s complicated. Tech, laws, people factors, process factors, preferences by parts of interest groups all combine to make this hard. We hear different answers, depending upon the state. The variation is frustrating because it seems unfair. There are process improvements that you can’t solve from a central office. It can’t be solved simply by creating a new claims process. We can’t hire people to do this for us. It is inherently a governmental duty.

We’ve started to wrestle with automation, end-to-end. We have a Fast Track Initiative, where we’re asking how would you take a process, starting with a veteran, and end up with a decision. The insurance industry does this. We’ve hired a company to create the first end-to-end claims process as a prototype. It works enough that it created a new definition for what’s in the realm of the possible. It’s created permission to start revisiting the rules. There’s going to be a better way to automate the claims process.

What’s changed for veterans because of the “Blue Button?”

Jonah J. Czerwinski: There’s a use case where veterans receive care from both the VA and private sector hospitals. That happens about half the time. A non-VA hospital doesn’t have VISTA, our EHR [electronic health record.] If a patient goes there for care, like for an ER visit during a weekend because of congestive heart failure, doctors don’t have the information that we know about the patient at the VA. We can provide it for them without interoperability issues. That’s one direction. It’s also a way to create transparency in quality of care, if the hospital has visibility in your healthcare status.

In terms of continuity of care, when that veteran comes back to a VA hospital, the techs don’t have visibility into what happened at the other hospital. A veteran can download clinical information and bring that back. We now have a level of care between the public and private sector you never had before.

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