Getting our heads in the cloud

November 25, 2009

A buzzword sure to make the rounds on the RSNA exhibit floor this year will be “cloud computing.” This approach to computing marshals resources available through the Internet as the infrastructure for processing, distributing, and archiving data. The beneficiaries of cloud computing systems, such as those who want to manage radiological images and reports, typically must make little or no new investment in hardware or software, an attractive selling point for products based on this concept, given the current economic environment.

A buzzword sure to make the rounds on the RSNA exhibit floor this year will be "cloud computing." This approach to computing marshals resources available through the Internet as the infrastructure for processing, distributing, and archiving data. The beneficiaries of cloud computing systems, such as those who want to manage radiological images and reports, typically must make little or no new investment in hardware or software, an attractive selling point for products based on this concept, given the current economic environment.

But cloud computing is more than just a low-cost approach. It is an example of the kind of benefit that comes from thinking about the Internet in new ways. Until now, the Internet has been seen for what it does: provide more information to more people faster. This is much the same way the Gutenberg printing press was viewed 600 years ago, when movable type made books plentiful and affordable.

Newspapers and pamphlets followed, providing the basis for political and social discussions that laid the groundwork for widespread democracy. The Internet is the ultimate expression of this idea, spreading opinions through blogs that travel the world over. And this may be only the beginning.

Social-media pioneer Anil Dash, who helped found the blogging-software company Six Apart, wants to leverage the cloud to tap expertise rather than computing horsepower. Dash is directing an effort called Expert Labs, which is aimed at extending social networking, popularized by such public systems such as Facebook and Twitter, into the policy-making process.

"Such technologies have the potential to "make our government better, make our society better, advance scientific research, and make people feel more connected to those social institutions that serve them," said Dash, who unveiled the project Nov. 18 in a keynote address at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York City.

The goal behind Expert Labs, according to Dash, is to tap into the expertise of scientists, technologists, and other citizens with specialized knowledge on key topics. Policy makers could use social networking to solicit expert input on draft legislation, he noted, just as Internet users now routinely use Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail to poll friends about personal questions.

But that's a passive role. Dash has loftier hopes for Expert Labs. He plans to use this project to bring policy makers, engineers, and whole science and technology communities together, with the policy community identifying questions, engineers collaboratively building platforms that help get the answers, and the science and technology communities providing many of the answers themselves.

Opinion leaders have chimed in with suggestions for Dash to consider successful technology models such as the Obvious Corporation, an incubator that gave rise to Twitter, and YCombinator, a support system for venture capitalists. Other relevant model technologies may include the Peer-to-Patent project, which helps encourage collaborative information sharing related to patents, and a digital arts system called Eyebeam, which has helped activists express their ideas. The news business has even gotten into the act with the suggestion that Expert Labs take a look at the Knight News Challenge, which supports the development of news technologies that may have commercial applications.

Ultimately, Dash said, Expert Labs may help incubate new technology platforms for capturing and sharing expertise on emerging policies on almost any issue, from science and technology to public health. At few other times in U.S. history has such a medium been more needed for bringing government policy makers together with healthcare providers and patients.

By encouraging the adoption of healthcare information services, President Obama recognized early in his administration the potential of technology for helping the federal government meet its healthcare goals of lower costs, higher quality care, and increased patient safety. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has agreed to provide input on possible science and technology test cases for Expert Labs. Hopefully someone will see the potential benefits of making one of those test cases healthcare reform.