Ten years ago, engineers at the National Institutes of Health decided to bundle together a bunch of regular computers in order to create a supercomputing capability. The result proved successful and has grown since, enabling scientists to run large-scale computational experiments that would otherwise be impossible, such as processing thousands of DNA sequences or running six-month-long molecular simulations to study cell processes.
These simulations allow scientists to examine things that cannot be measured in a lab — for instance, how molecules permeate a cell membrane or how a drug interacts with a protein.
This system, known as Biowulf, has 6,500 processors communicating over a fast network and 8,800 gigabytes of memory. It would have cost the agency millions of dollars to buy enough software to make such a supercomputer possible. But the designers who built Biowulf in 1999 decided to use open source software, much of which can be obtained free.
“It has grown and grown since 1999, and we were able to do it in part because the software costs are almost zero,” said Steven Fellini, a systems specialist for NIH.
Their proposals are part of a larger trend to bring the medical system, which still runs on paper and pens rather than bits and bytes, into the 21st century. Many businesses, from IBM to Procter & Gamble, have embraced the Web 2.0 ideals of transparency and decentralized problem-solving—what technologists call “open source.” But is it a good idea to apply those values to private health matters? Electronic health records are a step in that direction, and some experts go further, arguing that if transparency and openness can work wonders for software, it can also benefit diabetics and Parkinson’s sufferers. A growing number of Web-savvy health-care practitioners are coming to a similar view: that making data about your health freely available to family, friends and doctors could enhance the quality of care.
It’s also about gathering the collective wisdom, and making it available to researchers. “In the end, it’s the same as open-source software,” says Heywood. “If you can see all the information, you can correct the errors.” Drug companies and doctors are far from infallible, and in this way the PatientsLikeMe community serves as a useful check. The site is, in effect, building an enormous database of patient data that can determine whether drugs and treatments are having the desired effect.
Of course, such research is what economists call a positive externality—it doesn’t necessarily help the person doing the sharing. That might limit the appeal of transparency. But this is the era of the “overshare,” after all, where deeply personal information regularly makes it to blogs and MySpace pages. And the trend has two powerful backers: both Obama and McCain have released their health records to the public.
Standards Norway, the organization that manages technical standards for the Scandinavian country, took a serious blow last week when key members resigned in protest over procedural irregularities in the approval process for Microsoft’s Office Open XML (OOXML) format. The 23-person technical committee has lost 13 of its members.
This symposium is sponsored, in part, by Red Hat.
Policymakers have urgently called for predictions and prescriptions regarding the effectiveness of the U.S. patent system in promoting 21st-century innovation in an international environment. In many cases, empirical scholarship can go beyond more traditional modes of legal analysis to identify significant problems and to propose concrete, feasible solutions.
The 2008 North Carolina Law Review Symposium will showcase the remarkable diversity of recent quantitative research on the patent system, and the potential for even broader and deeper interdisciplinary engagement on questions of innovation law and policy. Nationally recognized scholars in law, business and economics will be joined, for perhaps the first time in such a setting, by leading research scientists who have brought distinctive data sets, analytical methodologies, and stakeholder perspectives to their own examinations of the patent system. For all who attend, the resulting conversation is likely to be uniquely challenging and rewarding.
The Swedish Standards Institute (SIS) approved the Open Document Format (ODF) as a national standard, the ODF Alliance reported this week.
“Sweden now joins Brazil, Croatia, Italy, South Korea, and South Africa as countries whose national Swedish Flagstandards bodies have formal approved this standard”, the ODF advocacy organisation writes in this week’s newsletter.
SIS press officer Erika Messing called the approval “routine”. SIS was one of the national standardisation organisations that took part in the procedure at ISO to approve ODF, she said. “ISO approved it in 2006 and now SIS has made it a national standard.”
Messing adds that all standards are voluntary to use. European standards are mandatory to implement as national standards but they are still voluntary to use.
SIS in 2007 also took part in the controversial ISO procedure on a competitor for ODF, Microsoft’s proposal for electronic documents, OOXML. Sweden was one of the countries where irregularities took place in the OOXML procedure.