Tuesday, September 8, 2009

PHIN Conference Thoughts.

Greetings all,

It has been a week since the PHIN conference started with a long weekend in-between, and today I wanted to list out the impressions I got from the crowd and the panels and the discussions I had there... Then I hope to expand a bit with my notes and more thoughts in future blog entries.

- Impression the first(e): Where are the users?

At least two of the panels I attended could be summarized as "this/those informatician(s) used that/those cool grid technolog(y/ies) and find it helpful in doing there work, now if we could only get more of those technologies and work on making them talk to each other". The panels showed me several things. The most important is that informaticians, doctors, and users in general knew that there was stuff out there and they were using it to make their lives easier (IE, "Peter feels validated"). The next coolest thing we learned is that the users had very good opinions and suggestions about how the products could be made to better suit their needs... and the final point I realized is that while many of the fine-grained steps in the process were different (each health department has a different end data format and a different way of describing what they consider to be 'flu'), a lot of the general needs were the same (speed, ease of use, customizability, ease of interaction with other services). I feel that this shows the need to find as many of the users as possible and to try and create a very good space for them to have their opinions and needs voiced, and hopefully help each other install and adjust GRID-like products to suit those needs.

The other user impression I got is that PHGrid, as users of things like Globus and CAGrid (Introduce), are getting a lot of things needed from those programmers and communities. Globus is coming out with cool new things that solve a lot of the old problems, CAGrid is improving Introduce to match the new version(s) of Globus and answering the "how do we create a grid without having to buy lots of expensive third party certificates and how do we simplify registration/addition of new nodes" problems. CAGrid is also looking into ways to remote-deploy services to user boxes so they can run analysis or other functions on data that cannot leave their organization.

- Impression the second(e): We should do the things to make it easy for users even if it makes our lives more difficult.

Several of the panels included the phrase "at our local health department... we tend to see flu like this... but next door, they see flu like this...". In short: "Two health departments, three classifications". In addition, local health departments are wary of attempts to take large chunks of their data so that someone else can re-classify the data. But, they are fine with setting up a service that only gives summary data (no patient info, just counts). Furthermore, they don't have much trouble going "when the service asks for an aggregate count of flu, we'll give them an aggregate count of what we think flu is". Furthermore, they like the idea of having services that allow them to re-organize or re-classify data so it matches a standard, so long as they don't have to email large files or mail DVDs to some place outside of their control.

This means, the biggest impediment to using these types of services is probably going to be the major learning curve required to install all the various toolkits (globus, CABig, tomcat, certificates) and the various configurational complexities to all the applications. The more time we spend making an installer, the less time we have to spend on the phone with interested health departments telling them how to set it up. That also goes for how easy we make it for health departments to write the queries into their own database(s) or datasets. Finally, we need to focus on allowing for customizable outputs from the service viewers we create. If someone can go to GridViewer and get a sample of data to make sure that the CSV we spit out will be able to be read by their analytics... that will help save them some time in a word-processor.

Thus, installers, view panes, things that centralize and simplify configuration and installation with the obvious stuff up front and the complicated stuff defaulted but in an obvious place for modification. Think firefox. Think google.

- Impression the Third(e): Everyone is really happy that all the stuff is relatively open, free (as in speech), and everyone is acquainted with each other and thinking of ways to collaborate and suggest improvements.

If we make a service builder, we will probably be extending CAGrid's introduce. Dr. Jeremy Espino is tweaking globus service projects with Ivy so one doesn't have to upload various libraries into a repository. Globus is new and probably going to be using CXF instead of Axis which will probably improve everything and make us impromptu beta-testers, and a lot of people seem to be marvelling at Quicksilver and Gridviewer and looking forward to their improvements.

So generally, the PHIN conference helped me focus on what I think we need to be doing for the next year, namely getting ready and making our stuff flexible enough for a lot of users to do a lot of different things to make their statistical and analysis efforts easier.

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