More on the mPedigree idea

Thanks to Charmine for your comment to this morning’s post (would you like to identify yourself though?)

Just a couple more thoughts on this one.

Every time I hear someone tell me something is foolproof I wonder what the snag is – even when, as in this case, it looks like a winner. The BBC World Service clip linked from the mPedigree page addressed one thing: as a single use code, mPedigree should be difficult to forge. And it should be a lot cheaper at the point of sale than the alternative RFID solutions: no expensive, possibly unreliable (in those conditions) reader required.

But as well as the harmful effects of the counterfeits, Pharma is concerned about grey re-imports, particularly of drugs donated free or sold at manufacturing cost in the developing world. That applies to major initiatives like GSK’s AIDS and filiariasis projects (meaning the donation gets intercepted and is then sold back into the western market). This raises the cost of drugs for all of us. High-touch manual intervention like the mPedigree system can’t help here; but RFID can in principle detect smuggled packs without seeing or touching them. There’s also the very significant point that major retailers like WalMart and benefit agencies like the US Veterans Administration are mandating RFID at least at the pallet level; so quite a lot of the RFID cost is going to have to be incurred anyway.

But I’d think a combination of the two technologies ought to be a possibility. Maybe I feel a question coming on for the next AGM.

• Global health programmes (filiariasis, malaria, AIDS, public health) – GlaxoSmithKline Community
• GlaxoSmithKline begins testing new technology – this GSK press release from 2006 is about the RFID option
(I pick on GSK because I used to work for them and know about it)

Davos Tech Pioneers: fake drug detection stands out

The Davos World Economic Forum is in session. We don’t cover high finance here, but have a look at the annual list of Technology Pioneers. Thirtyfour companies named this year, in three sectors: biotech, energy & environment, and IT. With some cross-over, naturally.

Having worked in pharma for a dozen years, the one that most caught my eye was a service called mPedigree, from Ghana. The industry has been agonising for years over detection of counterfeits, particularly in developing markets where managing the issue is hardest.

At one stage, RFID was seen as the solution with tagging at least down to the pack level. But mPedigree uses a simpler solution: a scratch panel, and a mobile phone. Scratch the panel on your dispensed drug, text the code to a well-known number (1393), and a response tells you if it’s genuine. The same service can be used at the pallet and pack level, so wholesalers and pharmacists can gain the same assurance.

1393 is being rolled out across an increasing number of countries, helped by the fact that the mobile phone companies are multinational in Africa. And the codes are one-time use, so they can’t be cloned. Go to the mPedigree site and there’s a link to an interview on BBC World Service radio.

This is a classically innovative idea. Smart use of established technology to solve a real and critical problem. And originating from the market where it’s needed, not from outside.

What else caught my eye? Actually not a lot that seems truly innovative.

In the biotech section there’s a Japanese service called Lifewatcher that looks interesting, but its own website is in untranslateable Japanese so I can’t tell you much. The Tech Pioneers list says it provides "unique real-time mobile solutions for preventing and managing lifestyle-related chronic diseases". But text messages to remind you to take medication have been around for a while.

In the energy section, GreenPeak offers mesh-network technology for sense and control applications, working by "energy harvesting". But there are other companies that do that. I didn’t see anything on power management to match, for example, a major Silicon Valley campus visited by Leading Edge Forum, on their 2007 Study Tour. Capitalising on an existing campus-wide 30,000 sensor network, the company can not only monitor but manage their power usage. In a crisis, they could say to Pacific Power “We can reduce our power consumption by 70%, and we will manage it ourselves”.

In the IT section, apart from mPedigree, there doesn’t seem to be anything startling. SpinVox, which can turn voice messages into text and email them to you, has been around for quite a while. Etsy provides a marketplace for “all things handmade”, but it’s just a sales portal with a focus. Nivio provides a Windows Desktop environment running in the cloud (presumably, for most users, accessed via a Windows Desktop running on a real PC somewhere …). Take a look, and see what you think.

• Technology Pioneers Programme, World Economic Forum, Davos 2009, with links to all the award recipients
• mPedigree
• 2007 Study Tour report, Leading Edge Forum (available to subscribers only)

PS – the Gaza appeal and the BBC

Outside my normal field of comment: but, amid the furore about the BBC deciding not to screen the appeal for disaster relief in Gaza, did you notice how far the BBC News went to make up for the deficiency?

Their news report went out with a backdrop of the poster, there was at least one (though extremely short) extract from the film, and the DEC website address was included in the backdrop towards the end of the report.

Well done BBC News! Disaster relief whether earthquake or warzone doesn’t take sides. If you missed it, visit

History’s black hole: the Internet age

Dame Lynne Brindley, Chief Executive of the British Library (BL), spoke last week to highlight the ephemeral nature of digital media and, in consequence, the potential for large areas of knowledge to become invisible to analysts and historians in the future. A podcast of the speech is promised.

Historical research, in particular, relies on sources: public and private correspondence, official records, photographs, architectural plans and much more. The railway preservation movement relies heavily on archived drawings. We rediscover unknown music by respected composers. We pore over Cabinet and government papers (notice: papers) when they are released. And so on. The BL already has an Endangered Archives programme focussed on “pre-modern” material.

But, as Dame Lynne points out, increasingly our records are digital. And things move on: both file formats and media. The National Archive uses archaic software to read old documents (though actually, Office is pretty good at importing its precursors). I still have a small box of five-and-a-quarter-inch floppy discs, but no way to read them. Even the three-and-a-half-inch format is a problem. I have a box of research data somewhere on 8-hole paper tape … some hope!

Professor Fred Hoyle envisaged the problem decades ago in his novel The Black Cloud (1957): at the end his character wonders what to do with data in an outdated format. And it is a problem for anyone maintaining long term archives. Could you read, now, an old magnetic tape written at 200 bpi? It’s for this reason, among others, that electronic submissions to the US Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) have to include, with the data files, the computer system on which they are to be read. I believe that’s still the case!

There are a couple of examples in the news reports. President Obama’s White House website now contains no material whatsoever, so far as can be determined, from the Bush era; although the Bush version of was still up there half an hour before the new man was sworn in. And even Google’s cache contains very little, though there are copies of some material that were lifted onto blogs and other sites.

And, going back a little further: in 1986 the BBC ran the Domesday Project which recorded a wide range of facts about the state of the nation. But it was held on two 12-inch video disks, and was only rescued for posterity thanks to a team working with the last surviving player. Meanwhile William the Conqueror’s original Domesday Book, ink on parchment and nearly a thousand years old, is still readable thanks to its ancient and very conventional technology.

Or my own personal example. My Pocket Website ran a successful Year 2000 information section for about three years. When I published a note saying I proposed to take it down, I got emails asking for it to be retained because, even quite a short time after the rollover, much of the material had disappeared. (So it’s still there.)

How about a standard electronic format? A version of Adobe’s PDF has been designed for this purpose. PDF/A is an ISO standard (ISO 19005-1:2005); it is based on an archaic version of PDF (1.4) and is being updated. It adds restrictions to make the format universal, such as that all fonts must be embedded; and some to ensure a lowest-common-denominator interoperability, such as prohibiting multimedia and executable content. Its use would, of course, require existing archives whether document-based (Word, for the most part) or image-based (TIFF) to be converted. And it doesn’t say anything about media; but, as repository managers know, long term files have to be periodically copied.

And maybe another element is the increasing move of “stuff” onto the Web. Once upon a time, the family’s snapshots were in photo albums on the bookshelf or fading at the back of the cupboard. Now they’re digital, on the home PC. If they’re lost through carelessness, burglary, or deliberate decision, they’re really gone. But increasingly they’re also on Flickr or Facebook or YouTube, and likely to stay there. One up to the Web!

There’s something else important here which we might capture as “What’s a standard?”. MS Word version 2 was a “standard” when it was current. So was the “big” floppy. They aren’t now, and Microsoft has just radically changed the Word document format again. Twenty years is a long time in IT development, but not long in the lifetime of information. We need to be more aware.

• Dame Lynne Brindley challenges Government on Digital Britain British Library, 21 Jan 2009
• We’re in danger of losing our memories Lynne Brindley, Observer, 25 Jan 2009 (there’s also a news report in the same paper)
Domesday Redux: The rescue of the BBC Domesday Project videodiscs Ariadne (UK online archives and libraries journal), Jul 2003
Pocket Year 2000 part of InformationSpan’s Pocket Website
• PDF/A-1, PDF for Long-term Preservation, Use of PDF 1.4 entry at Digital Preservation, an initiative of the Library of Congress
The Endangered Archives Programme at the BL

Autonomy: upbeat in the downturn

Financial press in the UK today reports that at least one IT company is doing well in the downturn: Autonomy. The company raised its forecast three months ago, and has exceeded even that expectation.

This performance is on the back of increased fears about regulatory compliance, particularly relating to legal discovery with very tight time limits likely to be enforced in the US. Search and discovery, therefore, is one of those “cost of doing business” implementations. Properly understood, it’s classic Risk Management: taking on a hard cost to account for the likelihood of a much higher cost event.

The company’s announcement is very low key – just one paragraph and a quote from Mike Lynch, the CEO. Mike Lynch has just been named UK Entrepreneur of the Year in Management Today’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs for 2009. Forrester’s Wave for enterprise search, published mid 2008, names Autonomy among the leaders; the report (not surprisingly) is currently featured on Autonomy’s home page, so non-subscribers can download it there.

If there’s a Take Note point for enterprise IT, it is that good compliance and risk management is still a growth area. It may not directly impact either top or bottom line, but it’s still essential!

• Red tape keeps Autonomy in the black, The Guardian, 9 Jan 2009
• Autonomy expects to report 2008 results ahead of model, Autonomy, 8 Jan 2009
Autonomy’s Lynch heads Britain’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs, Management Today, 29 Dec 2008
• The Forrester Wave: Enterprise Search, Q2 2008, Forrester Research, 28 May 2008

Small change to ITasITis, hope it’s useful

You may notice ITasITis now has a blogroll in the right hand column, between “Recent Comments” and “Tags” (until I reorganise it again, that is …). There are three categories at the moment.

InformationSpan – links to other parts of the InformationSpan web presence: currently the main site, redesigned a couple of months ago; the index to analyst blogs which I introduced last year; and ITasITis tags on, providing links to news of interest that I don’t have time to write about (he new style on makes these easy to review!); and a few intermittent Tweets, though I’m not a frequent Twitter user.

Other Insight Links – a few key sources to others covering the insight services space, mostly from the Analyst Relations perspective

Tech Watch – analysts and individuals with worthwhile coverage of the technology landscape

No specific links in this posting; just check the blog roll!

Finding vendors: Magic Quadrants and so on

Carter Lusher of Sage Circle reports an interaction between Andreas Bitterer of Gartner and a smaller vendor who’s taken issue with coverage in a Magic Quadrant. Credit, as Carter says, to both parties for engaging in a public discussion about this.

If you’re a user IT organisation with a relevant subscription, you probably use the Magic Quadrant (or Forrester’s equivalent, the Wave) to assess the players in a particular marketplace. If so, it’s well worth reading this post to better understand these methodologies. It appeared over the holiday period, so you might have missed it.

Sage Circle looks at it from the vendor’s angle, for Analyst Relations professionals. Here’s a thought for the enterprise IT team.

If you are inclined to look at emerging or niche vendors, or at Open Source (the issue which triggered Carter’s posting), then the mainstream market assessments probably won’t see them, and the main insight providers probably won’t cover them. The same’s true if you are investigating a niche area. I was asked, once, to find a hosting service experienced with a specialised software product. In its own market area, this application was a leader; but it wasn’t exactly mainstream ERP! There was no analyst coverage at all, within our available subscriptions.

In this situation you can try three things.

First, find a niche insight provider which specifically covers the market, if there is one. Ask InformationSpan: we have the database, and the review is almost complete (I’ve got to “T”!), but one thing I do know now is that not all niches have this kind of specialist coverage.

Second, make your own assessment. Both Gartner and Forrester publish their criteria, though Forrester provide more complete details; if you’re in an area where there is no coverage then look at a related MQ or Wave for ideas what you ought to assess.

If you’re looking at niche vendors in a major area where there is coverage, remember that Forrester make available the full model including data and weightings. You can adjust the weightings to create your own Wave, and if some of those criteria aren’t of interest to you in relation to your niche interests, or you can’t either research or estimate them, then just zero-weight them. You can’t add data to a Wave, but you can work in parallel with it. And validate it with an analyst when you’ve done the work: they might well see something you’ve missed.

Third, you can ask the analyst to do custom research. Again, with a niche product there will be criteria they can’t assess – there won’t be a sizeable user community to ask questions of, for example. This may be useful for a niche product in a major area; in a specialist area it’s likely you’ll know more about it yourself and, because they’ll start from a lower base, it will be expensive. They may even say “no”. But they will work, so far as possible, to their standard methodology and this will make comparison easier; aside from not having to do all the work yourself!

Oh – and a Happy New Year! There’s plenty of talk about managing through the recession. I still like George Colony’s take: including, hire the smart MBAs who are not now going into finance!

• Vendor complains in a very public blog post about Gartner’s Data Integration Magic Quadrant Sage Circle, 29 Dec 2008
Setting the Record Straight Andreas Bitterer, Gartner blog, 28 Dec 2008
• CIO best practices for thriving in a recession Counterintuitive, George Colony, Forrester Research, 24 Sep 2008