Monday, November 22, 2010

Airport odyssey reveals how awful and annoying we are -

Airport odyssey reveals how awful and annoying we are -

This article speaks for itself. While not entirely about airport security, it does speak to our attitudes to mass travel and security as we pass through. The author traveled over 5000 miles observing passenger and security staff and collecting numerous eye-opening stories about how we travel. Kudos to the staff that have to put up with all this day in, day out.
In the debate about airline security, the media is reporting that the TSA may change screening methods in response to the outcry. I hope they don't back down. There is also talk about privatizing airport security. For those that still think the TSA are the bad guys, imaging you are about to board a plan to St Louis for instance. The guy in front of you is traveling alone, has a large bag, refuses to go through the scanner and is sweating a little. It's not hot in here you think, but you trust that if he's hiding somethimg, security will catch him during the pat down. The guys is uncomfortable with the first security officer who comes over for the pat down, and requests another. A second guy appears but seems to not conduct a proper pat down- what you don't know is that this private firm is rated on customer satisfaction and he doesn't want to upset anyone. How would you feel about getting on the same plane with a guy who refused the scanner, got a good deal on the pat down and looks sweaty and nervous? Training, accountability, security and regulation are all threatened with that model. It would also be incredibly expensive. Some activities are best kept with the government I think.

Brain Tumors Grow Their Own Blood Supply - ScienceNOW

Brain Tumors Grow Their Own Blood Supply - ScienceNOW

A quickie....this is an interesting new snippet on the science of cancer. Many types of cancer develop a new blood supply to bring nutrients in and take metabolic products out. Drugs to prevent the development of the networks of blood vessels that support this blood supply can be effective at reducing tumor size. These drugs are called anti-angiogenic drugs and they also work to prevent new blood vessel growth at the back of the eye in macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the over 60's. It has always been assumed that the new blood vessels grow from the outside of a tumor and invade the tissues to provide the blood supply. The study above, just published in Science Journal, suggest some brain tumors, called glioblastomas, can generate some of their own blood supply that appear be able to avoid the effects of the traditional angiogenic drugs. It seems at least some of the endothelium that lines the new blood vessels is differentiated from stem cells inside the tumor. New drug treatments could be aimed selectively at these unique endothelial cells, or could work further upstream to prevent the differentiation of the stem cells altogether.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The weight of health information

Lately I've been speaking with several folks who are in possession of large amounts of health information for one reason or another.  They all believe their data is valuable and are looking for ways to leverage it to make a business or to advance medical understanding, or both.  Noble ambitions indeed but a question struck me as I listened to the the most recent of them this last week.  Could it be that the weight of all that information is actually crushing innovation rather than stimulating it?  It seems to me that we have a plethora of data looking for a problem to solve.  If we recall the old proverb, 'Neccessity is the Mother of Invention', and then consider that some of our most recent enduring inventions were developed locally and ground-up with little intellectualization at the start (some of the more successful social media forums for eg) we might conclude tha Nike may have it right in their newer proverb, 'Just Do It'.  Serve a local, immediate and acknowledged need; if it works scale it.  This avoids the political nightmares of having to first make a business case to those who don't believe there is one.  The latter is a very difficult way to start a business but we do it all the time.

If we start from the ground up, we all want better health but what does that really mean?  Here are some possibilities:  Better ways to know if we are sick, or going to get sick; better treatments to prevent or cure at costs we can afford; more control over our general health; less hassle in managing health for ourselves and those we care for; a more peaceful existence.  To me, the latter is perhaps the most important of all and to some degree relies on success in the former four.

There are numerous elements to each of the outcomes but it seems like the last place to start in attempting solutions might be in collecting the data.  There's no harm in it per se, provide one doesn't expect the answers to then simply reveal themselves.  We must exert some energy up front if we are to make sense of the problem and move toward solutions in a short time frame and at reasonable cost. However, given that my colleagues have started with the data,  let's look at the process from the data-first perspective.  We are forced to ask questions in the following way: 1) what data do you have and where does the data comes from 2) what problems can you apply it to 3) who might have a vested interest in either the data or a solution.  Very time consuming and like put the cake ingredients into a bowl and then asking what we might make with it.  If we think nationally or globally then the problem is magnified and can be prone to costly red herrings.

If we look at the problem first, then understanding what to do with the data becomes that much easier because the need is already understood. To further simplify, solving a problem locally first allows one to talk directly with those that have the problem rather than having to resort to assertions or assumptions about the population as a whole.  Locally, trial and error can be conducted at low cost and low risk.  Even for those that already have large data sets, perhaps as a side effect of another part of their business (pharmacies or drug companies for instance), this approach is a sensible way to determine how the data might be leveraged more broadly.

Starting with a large amount of data and a set of assumptions means starting with a muddy board.  The danger of solving the wrong problem is great, provided you can get out from under the weight of all that data.   Starting with a white board and a diverse group of passionate individuals with first-hand knowledge of the problem is an innovation waiting to happen.


1. Identify the problems before you collect/look at the data
2. Become a local hero first.

Anyone have anything to add?

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Airport scanning- how much is too much?

One way or another, for me to get on a plane, I need to be assured that the best attempt has been made to check my fellow passengers for weapons, malicious intent, or materials that can be used for no good.  I see folks being sniffed by beagles or going through puffer machines to detect explosives, getting the pat down by surly but not unpleasant security staff, and occasionally being asked to step aside for further questioning because of a red flag somewhere along the way.  For years we have been trolling through the standard metal detectors and until 9/11 we figured it was not enough. Since then, the US has been spending quite a bit of cash to improve the means to catch the bad guys.  We focus on the person and the carriage of harmful agents; other countries such as Israel also throw in passenger profiling.  We have a system in the works to do that too. People will be profiled to identify their risk status- none, unknown, elevated or high, and this will be achieved by more intensive questioning at the time of booking the flight.  This week, a young passenger felt his civil liberty was violated by the TSA's invitation to step into the whole body scanner where the device would digitally strip him to identify any weapons or harmful objects about his person.  The traveler was even more upset with the pat down he had to undergo as a result of refusing the scanner.  He recorded the whole episode on his cell phone and by now it is viral on YouTube and the guy has been on every talk show under the American sun.  Recording in an airport security area is an offense so it will be interesting if his fine is as widely reported.  The incident triggered a firestorm, with many Americans declaring a revolt against the perceived inhumanity of it all.  Some have vowed to refuse the scanner and furthermore to wear a kilt for maximum harassment of security personnel during the required pat down.  I wonder, really, what folks are afraid of. Which is worse- being seen 'naked' by a security guard (who will see thousands of other 'naked' forms throughout his day), or having to jump an errant passenger in-flight because they are brandishing a box cutter or conspiring with a fellow passenger to put together an explosive?

I can understand the knee-jerk reaction to being 'violated' in this way but what should we really be concerned about?  I think there are a couple of questions, 1) Does it indeed violate civil liberties; 2) is it effective; and 3) is it safe.

In my view the civil liberty issue is a bit of a non-starter.  The good of the many outweigh the needs of the few.  I'd gladly submit to the scan, lumpy thighs and all, to contribute to better safety for all passengers.  The safety issue is the more interesting to me, as well as the overall effects of using the scanners on airport dynamics and travel times.  Here is what I have found out.  On the safety side, the scanners emit very much less radiation (0.005 milllrads per scan) than normal background (300 millirads). To reach the equivalent of background radiation one would have to go through the machines over 100 times a day.  Dr Brenner from the University of Columbia fears the official reports of radiation emitted by the units is underestimated by about 20 times. Even if this is true the radiation is still far less than background.   It seems the scanners are pretty safe, even for very frequent travelers. In terms of effectiveness, they can certainly detect weapons.  Whether there is a reduction in terrorist-like events we may never know.  Most potential incidents do not reach the news. So what about the affect of using the units on travel per se? According to several reports I found the use of a scanner takes about 25 seconds whereas a traditional pat-down takes 2 minutes.  If everyone used the scanner, then transit time through security should be faster.  A person can keep coats, belts etc on too.  Overall, it seems the scanners are a positive move.  In the UK, such scanners have been in use for over a year and, after initial controversy over privacy, 95% of the public now approve. A recent blog suggested that there might also be an anti-obesity side effect.  Image conscious travelers might want to drop a few pounds before stepping into the machine. 

There are murmurings of even more advanced systems that can detect liquid explosives, as well as the aforementioned passenger profiling systems that can identify a possible high-risk passenger based on additional questions asked at check-in.  And then there are biometrics methods that determine whether the person's face or eyes matches the person it is supposed to represent.  Whole body scanning is just the beginning so we had better come to terms with it.  Or just drive.