Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tech in Trying Times

The storm that hit Westport over the weekend provides many opportunities to see how technology can play a part in getting life back to normal.

To start with, our first responders - police, fire, EMS, and town officials - have and need good communications equipment in order to coordinate their efforts. Typically radios are used, since they don't rely on wires strung on poles that can be harmed by falling trees.

Along with communications equipment, our first responders are typically equipped with portable machines such as chain saws, "jaws of life," pumps, fans and other items that will help in an emergency. Note that most of these items are self-sufficient and do not require any backups or outside support to operate.

Such is the case with how many of our homes need to be in such an emergency.

Start with telephones in our homes. While most homes still have a telephone provided by AT&T or similar "land line" companies and these phones will continue to operate without electricity, if we rely on a phone that plugs into a power outlet, say a cordless phone, when the power goes out, so will our phones.

I keep an old wall-mounted princess phone in my basement that's plugged directly into the incoming AT&T line. Tha way, if we lose power, we'll still be able to make phone calls on a land line.

If you receive your telephone service over the Internet, whether it be through Cablevision, Vonage, Ooma, or some other company, your Internet service should continue even during a power outage. Again, there are items in your home that will need power during an outage, such as your cable modem, router, switch, etc. This is where an Uninterruptable Power Supply (UPS) -- essentially a battery -- can come in handy. Unfortunately, an UPS typically lasts a few hours, not the days or week that some people in Westport will be experiencing this week.

Neither of the above communications services will survive a tree falling on the lines that feed them to your house. This is where mobile phones come in handy. As mobile phones are wireless, as long as the cell towers stay intact, you should have phone service. Note that most cell towers have their own power generation backup systems that should allow them to continue operating without outside power for days.

Also keep in mind that many mobile phones have Internet access and can provide Internet access for one or more computers through what's called "tethering," if needed. Some new mobile phones even have built-in WiFi to provide Internet service to multiple computers simultaneously.

But communications is only one step in surviving a storm such as we experienced over the weekend.

It's always a good idea to have a few days supply of food and water on hand. Our first selectman, Gordon Joseloff, has recommended that houses have on hand two weeks of food and water.

Beyond that, having sufficient batteries and flashlights as well as required prescription medications and first aid supplies can help.

If your circumstances allow, having an emergency generator to power your home can be a wise investment.

Houses nowadays have far more electrical requirements than in years past. Beyond the obvious power requirements of refrigerators and freezers, most heaters require electricity to run pumps, motors and blowers. In the case of flooding, one needs power to run a sump pump to keep a basement dry. If you receive your water from a well, you'll need electricity to pump the water out. In our home, we have a pump to move sewage up a hill to the city sewer.

Hooking up a generator is not as simple as one would hope. If this is something you want to do, I suggest involving a qualified electrician and installer.

From what I've seen about this and other natural disasters, the good news is that during these times, we see the best and most generous of care from others. To those who have lost power or whose homes have been damaged, friends and neighbors have been very willing to offer assistance in any way possible.

To all who have helped and who continue to help our town and region recover, a heartfelt thank you.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 17 March 2010.
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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Kid Test

Years ago when I was designing software interfaces, I used to design software using what I call the "Mom Test."

As my mother is now in her late 70s and is not a computer user, my thought was that if my mother could figure out how to use it with little guidance, anyone should be able to use it.

Most of the testing my Mom performed was for PC-based software. This was prior to most of the Internet-based software we're used to.

The Mom Test is a remarkably reliable test. I would frequently take software I was developing over to my Mom's home and see if she could figure out how to use it. My use of the Mom Test provided some very good functionality that I would never have been able to come up with on my own.

But I've discovered another test. It occurred while watching my 5-year-old son, who was playing with my mobile phone. My son doesn't yet read and is still working on identifying his letters and numbers, so the use of words does not provide guidance to him.

Of course, he wasn't making phone calls, but he was navigating the menus and applications remarkably effectively.

He was able to move his fingers to bring up menus, scroll through lists, select items and applications and generally make his way through the user interface without much difficulty.

While I was somewhat afraid at what havoc he could wreak with my handheld device, my fascination with observing him allowed me to let him continue.

What fascinated me was how quickly he picked up on how to use the computer. He was clearly more agile than I am, able to pick out icons and menu items, not knowing what they say, but obviously knowing what they do.

It had me think about just how much we've changed from interfaces in which people need to be literate to use them, to interfaces that make extensive use of icons/symbols, color, graphics and, yes, text.

I dubbed this the "Kid Test." If my son can use a device, anyone can.

It also had me reminisce about how my first interactions with computers was with punched cards, paper tape and a teletype. Now, my son is moving his fingers across the surface of a smooth panel and even talking to the computer.

So while one might think of a change to interfaces of symbols, colors, and graphics to be "dumbing down" the way we use things, I see it as a broadening of the user base, including not only young people, but others who may not be able to read our language.

This latter item reminds of the many times I've been in foreign countries and, despite my years of education, I found myself functionally illiterate. There was one time in particular when I was in Russia and, with some guidance, was able to kind of, sort of make out the language, but it was at about the same level as my 5-year-old son is now.

While I don't believe it's possible to reduce every interface to simple pictures and icons, I do believe that we've made huge strides in making interactions with computers far easier. Given the changes that I've seen in the past few decades, I trust that we will continue with even better ways to interact with computers.

So as my son develops his skills with handheld computers and perhaps even laptop and desktop computers, I can only imagine how my children's children will be interacting with their computers. I'm looking forward to what the next generation "Kid Test" will look like.

Mark Mathias, a 30-plus year veteran of information technology and a resident of Westport, Connecticut, was named by Computerworld magazine to their inaugural list of “Premier 100 IT Leaders.” This column was originally published in the Westport News on Wednesday 3 March 2010.
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