Friday, January 09, 2009

My fellowship at CommerceNet just came to its expected end -- CommerceNet hires fellows for limited periods, to encourage them, rightly, to get cracking. I figure the fellowship was 75% successful.

Half my work was to continue as Applications Area Director for the IETF, which I continue to do. I got more efficient, I continue to learn a lot, and I even managed to publish a few documents (on consensus processes, interoperability testing and reporting and HTTP Email) that might lead somewhere. The HTTPBIS, IDNABIS and ALTO WGs all got launched. I helped 40 documents become RFCs. It's hard to measure success because there's always more one could do.

The other half my time was even more nebulously defined: I was to build a new venture or otherwise do stuff that would either reflect very well on CommerceNet or be a good investment. I wrote a paper with Rachna Dhamija, another Fellow, before she moved on to launch Usable. I worked with Phil Crosby to build a prototype of a sleep tracker Web application, and with Jeff Lindsay to build a prototype Web site for making public health information more accessible.

By the end of 2007, I focused on the public health information accessibility site. I built a short-term development plan and budget (or actually, several) and a long-term vision. The vision included supporting research by letting scientists share information with each other, benefiting from the same visualizations and data transformations that are required to make data accessible to ordinary people. The site was also intended to be highly contributory in the long-run, so that data collectors (whether government departments, academic or industry researchers or private organizations) could publish their data in this accessible forum.

In early 2008 I still had very little budget so I decided to build the live site myself. I brushed off my Python, taught myself Django, and wrangled with databases, graphing packages and CSS stylesheets, then with running a Linux server. I even did a logo myself. In the summer I launched

During all this time, I presented and demonstrated to everybody I could meet: at over sixty people, that was more than one demo a week. I was looking for partners (I actually hate building stuff alone), investment, grants or a home for the project. This is where I signally failed; although I often saw enthusiasm and expressions of support, I didn't manage to get enough concrete support to keep the project going.

I hope the ideas make it out there, though. There's no excuse for taking public money to create vast collections of public data, and then make the public interface as bad as this, or this, or this. Even CDC has daunting Web forms and codes to know. Users need to be able to discover data in an exploratory way, learning about it as they go, rather than be forced to know all about the data in order to know how to query it before they can even see any of it. Can you do that? Yes. Users can browse topics and see thumbnails of data visualizations, filtering as they go, never having to fill out a Web form or learn an ICD code. Faceted browsing and rich interlinking of related topics/graphs (more than I was able to implement on would make data browsing even easier and richer.

So that's the summary of what I've been doing "at work" for the last two years. I expect the next few to be interesting too of course!

1 comment:

Malcolm said...

That's quite a lot of activity for two years. All that IETF secretarial work! Must have required the patience and calmness of a saint at times.

In the "it's a very small world" department, I was reading Google's paper on social network privacy today -- (under)mining Privacy In Social Networks (it made Slashdot) -- and your paper with Dhamija is referenced from there.

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