In May 2019, I highlighted the topic of telehealth for my Henry’s High-Tech Highlights blog series. I think it’s high time we take another look. Before this year, telehealth was a fairly new technology that only a handful of folks were thinking about and exploring. With the pandemic, it’s risen to the forefront of people’s minds, becoming more relevant than ever. Suddenly we need telehealth implemented everywhere, on a massive scale, as communities, especially rural ones, are facing a worsening health crisis. Many lack local healthcare facilities to visit and the necessary Internet connectivity to make virtual doctor visits work. Libraries around the country are poised to be the perfect partners in these efforts to bring this critical need to the community, and we just happen to have a pioneer right here in Texas leading the charge.
Today’s highlight: Telehealth at the library
First off, why do folks need telehealth access, especially now?
Rural hospitals have been closing at a catastrophic rate.
Many people in rural areas are located far from any hospitals.
There’s also a lack of transportation options (no public transit) for folks to physically travel to the hospital.
Even when transportation is available, patients are often reluctant to travel outside of their area.
And most significantly, there is insufficient broadband access, a requirement for telehealth, in many residents’ homes.
Additionally, many of retirement age buy homes in rural areas to live, but when they find they need more healthcare, they end up selling their homes and returning to the cities due to the lack of access. Adding telehealth services to libraries means these seniors could receive the healthcare they need, thus allowing them to stay, age in place, and have the quality of life they desire. Libraries have the opportunity to be transformative, helping to maintain the vitality of their communities.
Why are libraries the perfect telehealth partners?
It’s a place already in communities to serve people’s needs that people trust.
It has friendly, helpful staff who respect privacy and are pros at teaching digital literacy skills.
It often has free high speed Internet, faster than many might get at home.
I think libraries and telehealth go great together, so I decided to make another promotional poster based on ones from World War 2 to support telehealth services at libraries.
Despite the great match-up of libraries and telehealth, there are very few examples in the U.S. I’m pleased to report that Texas is leading the pack in this regard.Pottsboro Area Library, a very small rural library an hour and a half north of Dallas, has a new telehealth pilot project in partnership with University of North Texas Health Science Center (UNT-HSC).
Last week, I invited Dianne Connery, former Director (now Special Projects Librarian) at Pottsboro Area Library and Jessica Rangell from UNT-HSC, to present during a monthly Zoom “TechChat” for TLA’s Innovation and Technology Round Table (ITRT) to discuss the facts I’ve outlined above and give a brief update on the pilot.
Here is a youtube recording of the 30 minute chat from 2/25/2021 if you want to watch the whole thing, but I’ve also highlighted the key points below.
During her talk, Dianne described how patrons would come into the library during the early days of the pandemic, reporting that their doctors wanted to talk to them but didn’t want them coming in for appointments for fear of contracting Covid. Unfortunately, a virtual visit wasn’t possible for these patrons since they didn’t have Internet access at home. What were these patrons supposed to do?
Dianne had recently installed fiber at her library in order to support an innovative eSports program, so she knew the library’s Internet was up to snuff for a video-conferencing call. At first, she ended up setting up telehealth visits for these patrons in her office so they could have their doctors’ appointments. This was just a stopgap solution, however. A clear need was being articulated by the community, and Dianne wanted to do more to address the issue.
Investigating further, Dianne discovered a grant available from the Network of the National Library of Medicine (NNLM) – South Central Region (SCR). She applied and was awarded funding to pay for lighting (more on that later), health collection development, hardware (webcam, microphone, computer), signage, and marketing materials so that she could set up an innovative telehealth pilot with her partners at UNT-HSC.
How It Works
Step 1: If someone in the community has the need for telehealth, they make a call directly to the Health Science Center to make the reservation. This protects their privacy (library staff never knows the names, only the times of the appointments). This is especially important in a small town where everyone may know each other.
Step 2: Once the reservation is made, the patient can come into the library to a special designated room that is staffed by healthcare professionals. Besides the registration, the payment process and screening for Covid is all handled through the Health Science Center.
Here are a few more points made by the presenters:
Offering this kind of telehealth service is scalable to any size library.
A library doesn’t need to have a separate dedicated room.
It also requires good lighting to ensure clinicians can diagnose their patrons with the same visual information they would have in person.
As mentioned in my intro, many are now abuzz about telehealth due to the pandemic’s highlighting of the ever-widening digital divide. Legislators and funding providers are eager to support projects like this and bring telehealth to communities. So keep on the look-out; funding is coming!
A Community of Practice
With her pilot, Dianne says she’s building the plane as she’s flying it, just winging it really. This is such new terrain we’re all in. We will all benefit from the lessons learned from her attempt, but let’s get the conversation going and develop a community of practice.
Some questions to explore:
What kind of training do library staff need to set up and implement telehealth services?
How should libraries advertise this new service and reach people where they are?
How should libraries implement good workflows to deal with infection control issues?
What are considerations not thought of?
What more can be done in this space? For example, could it be made mobile to visit patients where they are – such as in nursing homes and assisted living facilities?
Are you considering telehealth at your library, or are you already doing it? Want to learn more? Please email me with subject line “Telehealth” if you have stories, ideas, or resources to share – or if you just want to stay in the loop with regard to library telehealth in Texas.
Not that long ago, gadgets were something we associated with a far-flung future straight out of science fiction. We imagined people in this distant time using special mechanical pocket-sized devices to perform their daily tasks, like wrist-watches with two-way tv/radio, or handheld computer scanners that could reveal the secret information embedded all around us.
And then it actually happened… The Age of Gadgets arrived.
People are shown walking around, never looking up from watching the tiny screens on their devices. This was a ridiculous, laughable scene at the time, played for comedy, but looking at it seventy years later, we don’t even bat an eye; it looks pretty normal to us.
I feel like the people of 1947 were making fun of us futuristic folks from the 21st century, and I suppose the truth is, we deserve it.
From Apple’s AirPods to myriad massage guns to Ring doorbell cameras to foldable phones to wireless charging pads to FitBits to smart-toothbrushes, gadgets are ubiquitous these days. But that doesn’t mean they can’t continue to surprise us with their almost supernatural capabilities.
Just in time for Halloween, I’m taking you on a terrifying tour of 13 diabolical devices designed to dumbfound and delight you.
Today’s Highlights: Ghastly Gadgets!
1) Interactive mirrors
Personally, I’m spooked by the idea that my mirror will start showing me reflections of things that aren’t already in the room, but I’ll have to get used to it. These smart mirrors can have touch-screen menus with familiar apps such as weather, stock market, news headlines—you name it. Don’t bother trying anything on when you’re not sure what to wear; the mirror will show you previews of what your outfits will look like on your actual body. Whether it will confirm you’re the fairest in the land remains to be seen.
2) Digital frame with famous painting subscription
Sign up for a special subscription and you can get high-definition digital reproductions of famous works of art streamed straight to this fancy frame in your home. It’s like a personal magic art museum.
3) Polaroid Lab
Send your digital photos on a smartphone app to this little “desktop darkroom” which will process and print them as physical Polaroid pictures. We so often see things that convert the physical or analog into digital, but sometimes it’s refreshing to see the reverse. I miss the immediacy and tangibility of the Polaroid picture. The only thing I miss, however, with this gadget is you don’t have to shake the photo to get it developed.
4) Digital tattoo machine
Another digital-to-analog device is this temporary tattoo printer called Prinker S hat lets you use a smartphone app to select a design or customize your own—then place it on your skin to physically print it where you want.
5) Face printer
And there’s this printer (opte) that can sense any dark spots on your skin and apply pigment over them. I feel like this gets us one step closer to Star Trek’s medical tricorder.
6) Text reader gadget
The OrCam Read device can be pointed at a block of text and will then begin reading it aloud. Great for people with reading difficulties such as dyslexia or reading fatigue.
7) Bosch Home Connect Fridge
This smart fridge from Bosch uses cameras to identify the food you’re keeping cool and suggests recipes based on the inventory of ingredients you have on hand. This would make me want to stock up on a hodge-podge of interesting things just to see what my attentive, invisible fridge chef thinks up for me.
8) Self-cleaning and self-purifying water bottles
I admit it, I am pretty lazy at times. But that’s no excuse for not cleaning my water bottle in between uses. This gadget has a built-in invisible servant who does the job for you. It also ensures your water’s purified. I would welcome such a device into my life.
9) Self-sealing and self-changing trash cans
Also welcome is this trash can called townew which allows one to never have to risk touching gross trash more than one has to. It won a “2020 Innovation Award” from the recent Consumer Electronic Show (CES), and I can see why.
10) Smart oven
This smart oven by Amazon is a 4-in-1 microwave, convection oven, food warmer, and air fryer with 30+ built-in presets. It’s integrated with voice-activated Alexa and has a “temperature probe” so it knows when your food is cooked the way you like it. No need to search in vain for the tiny printed instructions hidden somewhere on the box of your microwaveable food. Just scan certain packaged foods, and this smart oven will know how to cook them automatically. Now what I want to know is, does it bake “smart cookies”?
11) Smart garden
Speaking of “smart,” this gadget, Click And Grow, is described as a “zero effort,” plug-and-pay, “set it and forget it” countertop garden system that uses Smart Soil inspired by NASA technology.
12) Throwable microphone
This is an oldie, but a goodie: a throwable microphone (Qball). It’s a fun way to integrate technology in a playful and kinetic way, and helps ensure that participants in your in-person meetings don’t all talk at once.
13) Invisible keyboard
Finally, my vote for the spookiest, ghastliest gadget is this keyboard that isn’t even there! SelfieType tracks your fingers using the front-facing selfie camera on your phone or tablet. The keyboard uses artificial intelligence (AI) to sense your tapping fingers and figure out what you’re pantomime typing.
Do you have a favorite “Ghastly Gadget”? Share in the comments!
I’ve highlighted a lot of exciting technologies in this blog series, but there is one out there right now that I believe libraries should be making every effort to acquire and take advantage of, if they haven’t already. Harnessing it will ensure that both the library and the community it serves will continue to thrive in the future. The technology I’m talking about is fiber optic cable connectivity.
Today’s highlight: Fiber
Social media giant Facebook announced earlier this month that they’ve been collaborating with a number of partners to develop a robot that can deploy fiber optic cables quickly over power lines. This dramatically reduces the cost of fiber construction.
[Nerdy fun fact that I personally love: they nicknamed the robot “Bombyx”, scientific name for a silk moth. Get it?]
Why is Facebook making an acrobatic silkworm robot? Around the world, 3.5 billion people are still not connected to the Internet. And for those who have access, average data usage per person is growing 20 to 30 percent annually, pushing current capacity to its limits. To address these issues, Facebook says, “fiber must be brought from the backbone closer to the end user.” For them, that means pursuing innovations like Bombyx.
I, for one, welcome our new robot fiber deliverers.
What is fiber?
To put it poetically, it’s light-filled glass connecting us to a better tomorrow. I’m inspired to describe it this way because of the book I’m currently reading: “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It” by Susan Crawford. In her book, Crawford sings fiber’s praises and makes excellent points about why fiber deployment is the key to the nation’s success.
On her love of the technology of fiber, Crawford writes:
“Inventors have found ways to encode stunning amounts of information on pulses of light vibrating billions of times per second, and then send that light on its journey through a channel made of the purest glass on earth.”
Fiber, Crawford explains, is a physical connection that needs to be distributed to each individual building for it to be harnessed. The same is true for copper and cable, of course, but fiber is more flexible and doesn’t require recipients to be close to a central physical hub.Perhaps the biggest advantage of fiber is one doesn’t have to dig the existing cables back up to make an upgrade. Those cables can stay where they are, and they last for decades. One just has to “swap out the electronics that encode and power the pulses of light,” which are easily accessible above ground. This means that fiber is almost infinitely upgradeable, and it’s why so many consider it a future-proof technology, unlikely to become obsolete any time soon.
Needed for the future
Many of the emerging technologies I have highlighted for HHH are ones we expect to be a big part of our lives in the future. And here’s the truth: they require fiber infrastructure to work in the first place.
So many of us use our smartphone in the outside world away from our homes, and we might be forgiven for thinking that wireless connectivity is a wholly separate technology from a wired connection. But they’re actually complimentary―WiFi requires a fast wired connection for it to work. Fiber, plus advanced wireless capability, as we’d see with the predicted 5G revolution, is, as Crawford writes, “central to the next phase of human existence as electricity was a hundred years ago.”
5G means that enormous amounts of data can be shipped to whenever and wherever they’re needed. This allows the Internet of Things (IoT) to be implemented in our towns and cities to improve citizens’ lives, solving problems like traffic and the handling of fires and accidents, among many other things.
Fiber also enables Augmented Reality (AR). All that visual annotation occurring in real-time, or the piping in of live video feeds into our field of vision while we are out in the world―these features require fiber-enabled 5G connectivity. In her book, Crawford asks us to imagine an apprentice training in a remote factory using directions from AR, rather than having to go to the physical central training location. It means those in rural areas will have equal access to the same privileges as their urban counterparts.
And of course, telehealth. Crawford writes, “Every part of the health care system could be vastly improved by eliminating distance, bringing data, doctors, and counselors where they’re needed via communication networks, rather than making 330 million Americans travel to where these specialists and databases are.”
Finally, Crawford thinks we may not fully grasp the value of having even faster speeds with fiber―particularly with regard to interacting remotely. Currently when we video conference with one another (an activity many of are having to do a whole lot more of), there are still lags when virtually communicating. Crawford points out that this delay means eye contact between people is not genuine. It’s something we humans actually notice, and subconsciously the interaction doesn’t fully satisfy us. It feels virtual, inferior. With the fiber-enabled higher speeds, we can overcome this dissatisfaction and unease. The closer we make our remote, virtual interactions feel like we are physically present with each other, the better the social connection, which could make a big impact in how we embrace the technology and use it in the future. Crawford writes, “Fiber will allow us to be present in others’ lives in ways we cannot now imagine.”
The truth is we can’t wait for the future to come.
The current crisis is revealing just how much of a digital divide we have in the United States. The alarm was raised long before the pandemic when it was pointed out that students who lacked Internet access at home were unable to complete their mandatory online homework, causing them to lose valuable educational opportunities and fall behind their classmates. Called the “homework gap,” this discrepancy and inequality of access created immediate disadvantages for many people. But in the times we’re living in now, with schools closing and having to switch to virtual classrooms, it means these same kids can no longer even participate in school activities at all. And, it should be pointed out, it’s not just Internet access that’s needed, but fast, affordable and reliable Internet access. Students may have an Internet-enabled device at home, but it may not be connected to the higher speeds needed to handle the video conferencing technology school use for their classes. What we’re seeing is that it’s not just a homework gap any more; it’s a learning gap. And we need a solution now. We needed it yesterday.
When public library buildings closed, similar issues were faced by many adults, who lost access to crucial services and opportunities. So many paths to success in life rely now on having online access: job search and training, healthcare information, communicating with loved ones, etc. Many people’s sole computer is their smartphone, and they must pay for data to access the Internet. Free available WiFi found at public libraries is a way to not only access the needed services but also to save money. Taking away the library’s Internet revealed just how many folks relied on it. Closing the library building and stopping the transmission of its Internet access is self-destructive. The community is stifled and starved, lacking in its source of nourishment to grow. This is why so many libraries are trying to lend out wireless hotspots and extend their WiFi into their parking lots.
It’s not just the schools or libraries. A BroadbandNow report released in February said that only 25 percent of American have access to fiber, versus 87 percent for China’s 1.4 billion population. We are way behind. Everyone has a right to fast Internet speed right now. And those who don’t have it may suffer and become further disadvantaged.
Getting fiber to the library is a good start.
How are public libraries getting fiber?
If a library isn’t receiving fiber, and no service provider is offering it at an affordable cost to the area, consider the following:
Advocate for fiber infrastructure to be brought to your community, either locally or nationally.
Apply for federal E-rate discounts to afford the costs not only for special construction to build out the fiber to the library building, but for the cost of the Internet access itself.
Look for any existing fiber infrastructure in your community that can be leveraged. State appropriated funding in Texas helped support school districts in building expensive fiber rings across the state. We’re now seeing public libraries partnering with those same school districts to start taking advantage of their fiber connectivity. In many cases, the fiber ring was built so physically close that the cost to connect the library is minimal. Often in these partnerships, libraries join forces with the schools as part of a single consortium to apply for federal E-rate discounts.
In early February 2020, I had the privilege of attending the TCEA Convention in Austin. This is a conference put on by Texas educational professionals, teachers, trainers, media specialists, and school librarians all of whom love to employ technology in fun and innovative ways for their students. You can really feel the love there. TCEA presenters and attendees don’t employ tech because their boss or school district said they should, but rather because they unabashedly enjoy new technology and want to share their enthusiasm with their students, knowing that modelling that joy and getting it into young people’s hands are the keys to their future success. These are my kinds of folks.
At TCEA, there were a lot of great presentations from these tech-savvy teaching superstars, ones that showcased the newest, most buzzworthy educational tools, tips, and tricks. I think my favorite program of the whole conference though wasn’t about a new piece of software or fancy gadget. It didn’t talk about VR, AR, AI, or any other two-letter acronym. It was held in a small room, not heavily attended, on one of the first days of the conference and first thing in the morning. It described an idea out of Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth, Texas called Humanitronics, and I think it’s one of the most clever ideas for STEAM programing I’ve ever heard of. One day soon I hope we can be at a place where more schools and libraries can duplicate or draw inspiration from it.
Today’s highlight: Humanitronics
When I walked into the conference room that morning at TCEA, this is what I saw at the front:
Puppets. Propped up within a tiny decorated stage. Then a switch was flicked, and they were turned on.
The puppets began to move on their own, their mouths opening and closing in sync to the recorded voices of middle school kids acting out a skit featuring famous historical persons they’d researched in their seventh grade Humanities class. The students weren’t even there. They basically made robots perform their school assignment for them. Definitely a cool trick, but it’s what went into its creation that is, as I would soon learn, where the real magic resides.
And this magic has been dubbed, “Humanitronics”. As presenter Abbie Cornelius, computer science teacher and STEAM specialist at Trinity Valley School, explained:
This is, of course, a bit of word play referring to animatronics. If you’re not familiar with the term, perhaps you recognize this little guy, who happened to have captured many folks’ hearts right at the time I attended TCEA:
It’s Baby Yoda from The Mandalorian tv series. This immensely popular creature was created and performed using mostly animatronics puppetry. Although modern special effects in television and film rely heavily these days on computer generated imagery and less on practical effects, the art of animatronics is far from dead – as Baby Yoda’s adorable charms can attest. You can also find animatronics at theme parks such as Disneyland with their ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ ride, for example. And there are animatronics programs in higher ed., as well as classes taught in K-12 schools.
But Humanitronics is something special. The original visionary for the project was Dr. Paul Dietz, a former Disney Imagineer and Microsoft Researcher. He brought the project to Trinity Valley School in 2014, conducting a hands-on summer workshop for high school students. In collaboration with computer science teacher, Dr. Ginger Alford, the high school team traveled to Maker Faires in both Seattle and New York presenting their first animatronics project. The project continued to develop in other forms, but the original animatronics kits sat idle and unused, collecting dust in a closet at the school. This is when Middle School STEAM teacher Abbie Cornelius noticed something.
For the last several years, the seventh grade humanities teachers, Dan Betsill and Tina Harper, were teaching literature and history through a final class project where their students would script conversations between the characters they learned about. They’d then perform the skits as a puppet show using miniature sets they designed and decorated themselves. It was a great idea, giving students a chance to be creative and combine several humanities disciplines, such as playwriting, performance, and art.
Cornelius saw she could take it to the next level. She could leverage this existing humanities project and combine it with the animatronics kits. And thus, Humanitronics was born!
Teaming up with the humanities teachers, as well as Dr. Ginger Alford, SMU professor of computer science, Cornelius crafted a year-long program for seventh graders to continue their humanities puppet show project but now with integrated STEM skills.
(Normally, we see folks finding ways to put the A (Art) into the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) to make STEAM – but this is the reverse: adding the STEM to the Art.)
Besides what they are already getting in their humanities classes studying history and literature, in Humanitronics, they learn script writing and voice acting. They next learn how to use audio recording equipment and editing software, then metalwork and basic engineering and design skills while they fashion their puppet frames.
They learn about wiring and circuitry (electrical engineering) to control the servo motors in their animatronics.
They design, build, and decorate their sets,learning woodworking andinterior design
They get experience with coding and robotics as they record their lip-synced puppetry performance within their set.
Among many roles, they get to be performers, engineers, and writers. Every student tries all of the skills, with the chance to engage deeper with the ones that most interest them.
Fun Fact: They took the students to the local Benbrook Public Library to use their laser cutters – I love that!
One coda to the successful program: After the recorded robot puppet shows were finished during the 2018 year, Cornelius and the team took the project out to the larger community. At the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, the students played live performances, explained the process, and answered questions from museum guests. They even gave hands-on demos with the puppets, circuitry and servo motor programming.
Honestly, I can’t think of a more well-rounded STEAM project that exposes the students to so many practical disciplines. Humanitronics for the win!
Special thanks to Abbie Cornelius, who shared with me a promotional video of the project. It’s the source of the animated gifs included in this post.
Even before the pandemic closed our buildings, necessitated social distancing, and gave sudden prominence to our online offerings and services, many libraries had already ventured into less familiar digital territories to explore new ways to connect with and build their communities. They did so to reach the underserved, those in the community who were either unable or disinclined to physically visit the library building and engage with the services there.
Take teens, for example. Two popular online platforms that teenagers frequent are Discord and Twitch. Some libraries, trying to meet this age group where they are, have pioneered the use of these services before and during the current crisis. Now, more than ever, such virtual online spaces are worth boldly engaging with to conduct library programming and outreach.
Allow me to dig out my trusty highlighter, and let’s begin…
Today’s highlights: Discord and Twitch
What is Discord?
It’s a digital community gathering space, an app described as “Slack for gamers”. Picture a customizable chat channel with the integration of text, images, audio, and video.
Discord was created by gamers for that specific community: a shared space online to socialize, chat, share content, discuss strategy, and keep up with their games remotely and asynchronously.
Despite its gamer origins, Discord has many versitile applications including education and business. Any organization can use it to conduct outreach, communication, and facilitate community building.
So it’s a perfect fit for libraries!
How are libraries using Discord?
Here are a few ways the platform is being used in libraries today:
Dungeons & Dragons games
Internal staff communication
What is Twitch?
Twitch is the world’s most popular social live streaming site. Like Discord, it came out of the world of gamers. Besides being where most eSports competitions are broadcast, Twitch is the place to watch game-based talk shows or individual streamers playing their favorite video games while giving their own self-commentary. Participants watching the live stream can interact with the streamer directly or access the archived recordings on-demand. Unlike YouTube, where watching videos is usually free, and content creators are paid solely via advertising revenue, Twitch employs a subscription service and popular streamers receive payment from their subscribers.
Twitch isn’t just for games. There are a number of creative artists on Twitch – anything from sculptors to musicians – streaming the live creation of their work for an audience willing to give them immediate (and I mean immediate) feedback.
How are libraries using Twitch?
Digital literacy: To stream one’s one content, Twitch can be particularly complex to set up and use effectively with regard to its hefty hardware, software, and network requirements. This makes it a fantastic tool to introduce teens to crucial (and lucrative) digital literacy skills. Considering the growing rise in the number of female gamers, there’s an opportunity here to engage teen girls with the platform and encourage them to develop skills in this area and potentially pursue STEAM careers.
Despite its popularity with teens, over half of Twitch’s users are between 18-34 so libraries may want to consider using it to provide adult services as well.
Here are some ideas for how libraries could use Twitch:
Stream programs, workshops, and presentations for homebound patrons or ones outside of geographical area
Engage guest speakers for programming without requiring travel.and including special interactive component
Teach resume classes
Play bad movies and host a community heckle
If you’d like to learn more about these two popular platforms, I highly recommend this introductory presentation for last year’s Library 2.0 conference by Michael Dunbar-Rodney and Lorin Flores from San Antonio Public Library. Besides giving a great overview, it covers many of the emerging best practices for those libraries wishing to use Discord and Twitch themselves.
Back in late summer of 2019 (remember those halcyon days?), I noticed that May 2, 2020 was ‘International Drone Day’. So I planned a Henry’s High-tech Highlight post for this week on that topic.
The world is in a different place now than when I penciled that into my calendar. But as the week of May 2 approached, it struck me as still being an interesting highlight for this time.
You may recall that in 2013, Amazon announced plans to start a drone delivery service. I recollect feeling wonder-struck at this futuristic concept becoming real, imagining that our lives would soon become even more like science fiction. I thought the sight of autonomous flying robots zipping about their business above us as we conducted our lives down on the ground would soon become commonplace. Drones weren’t new in 2013; they had become a popular item for consumers a few years before. Once they had cameras attached and could be controlled by our smartphones, people wanted to give them a spin. Many libraries were quick to embrace this exciting new technology and began offering programming to showcase how it worked, as well as checking them out to patrons to try out at home.
Fast forward to today. It’s been seven years and Amazon’s drone delivery service has yet to take flight. Doesn’t it sure sound nice right about now? Many of us are social distancing and having varying degrees of difficulty in receiving even basic supplies like toiletries, pharmaceuticals, and groceries. Although items can be delivered directly to our homes, we rely on human drivers who may be putting themselves at risk. A remote-controlled robot that descends from the sky to drop toilet paper on my doorstep? Yes, please.
To some, drones may seem like they’re passe, a passing fad, part of a hypothetical future that never came to be. But despite the lack of an Amazon delivery highway in the skies above our neighborhoods, we’ve come a long way in the last ten years. There are a lot of really exciting things going on that I’d love to highlight for you. Drones are still worth buzzing about.
Today’s highlight: Drones
COVID-19 and Drones
It’s been interesting to see how emerging technologies can, well, emerge during times of crises such as what we’re going through now. Before we get to more general uses for drones, here are some instances when drones have been deployed in the pandemic:
To deliver supplies to residents: If you are a resident of Christiansburg, Virginia, you can already experience what it would be like to get your supplies via drone at this time. Google has a pilot project there called Wing launched in September 2019 with little idea they would be testing things out during a pandemic six months later.
To enforce social distancing (in China, France, New Jersey, Florida, etc.):
In Rwanda, they can cut a treacherous 4-hour road journey to just 30 minutes. Drones delivered 5,500 units of blood to Rwandan regional hospitals over a12-month period, leading to a reduction in maternal deaths and fewer cases of malaria-induced anemia! Source: beautifulnews.daily
Drones with crop sensors significantly improve the efficiency of agricultural inputs, such as fertilizers and water, and improve environmental impact. It saves the farmers thousands of dollars every year. Though primarily used for grains, a recent study is exploring how drones can even help fruit growers by:
taking inventory of tree height and canopy volume
monitoring tree health and quality;
managing water, nutrients, pests and disease in-season;
estimating fruit/nut production and yield; and,
creating marketing tools (videos for promotion of the orchard, or sale of trees and fruit).
If your library has a website, you’ve got a virtual, or digital, branch.
So what happens when all the library’s buildings are closed, the books are locked away on their shelves, the computers and printers are shut down, and the staff are sent home? Is the library gone? Is it really closed?
There may be a “virtual branch” sitting on the Web somewhere for people to find, but does that count? That’s just web pages with the library’s address and hours, maybe some text that no one really reads, right?
I don’t think so. The virtual branch is so much more. Especially right now.
Today’s highlight is the Virtual Branch.
Many might think that library closures mean that the library’s gone away. That the job is over, all the essential services have stopped, that staff will have nothing to do. That the virtual branch, the library’s online website, is merely a sad placeholder, a shuttered, boarded-up storefront, useless and defunct, with a message at the top announcing: “Sorry, we’re closed.”
I want those who think this to reconsider. Here’s what a virtual branch can be, should be, even when the buildings and physical collections are inaccessible.
Here’s what I hope folks understand: the virtual branch is still the people.
It’s YOU. It’s your friendly, helpful staff. It’s actual living library workers still doing the work they would do in the physical location, but now virtually. Many of the crucial services the library provides continue on. Even when the library is closed, the virtual branch can be actively open. You’re still helping your community..
Here’s a little video I made explaining more about a virtual branch, albeit back in far less crisis-y times:
Right now our communities are going to need help. This is the time for action. Libraries respond.
How will you respond to the various, and sometimes dramatically different, circumstances facing your patrons? For example, in a community for a public library:
People will be bored and need entertainment and diversion.
People with kids at home will need support for home schooling and parenting.
People working from home will need help with remote office technology.
People will be learning new skills, for example: finally getting to their home improvement projects.
People will be out of work and need help with unemployment filing, job training, job search and applications.
It’s that last one—the area of workforce development—that I believe is the most crucial. Folks in these situations could previously go visit a public library for the needed technology, good connectivity, and digital literacy help from the staff, but now they’ll need it all virtually.
At a minimum, libraries should use their virtual branch to provide up-to-date resources and show their communities how to access the services they need. They should be active users of their existing social media—to promote their digital content but also things like reader’s advisory—or try becoming active on social media for the first time.
There’s also programming that can be shifted to digital, using Zoom, Facebook Live, and other tools . Here are some great examples I’ve seen so far:
virtual storytime *
virtual book club meetings
Q&A’s about genealogy research
virtual ukulele class 🙂
* Need resources on streaming storytime? Check out the third tab in Youth Services (YS) Consultant’s awesome spreadsheet, Texas YS COVID-19 Resources
Don’t forget: We can still talk to our patrons over the phone. Google Voice can provide phone numbers for staff to provide reference services from home. Also, I’ve heard from one library considering playing a recording of an audio book over the phone for patrons to call in and listen to.
I would like to add more to the idea that the virtual branch goes beyond just the phone, website, e-resources, and social media. Now is the time for libraries to partner with other agencies and organizations, get outside the library (not necessarily physically), and join with all the forces on the front line helping your community.
Here are just a few ideas:
Become reference librarians for other city/county organizations
Find other ways to provide patrons with Internet access who have none :
Reach out to hospitals and determine if you can help. Do you have a 3D printer? There’s currently a widespread effort for maker spaces of all stripes, including libraries, to either donate 3D printers so faceguards can be printed, or print the faceguards themselves.
One library in Kentucky has set up its computers to run folding@home to add processing power for the study of COVID-19.
Assist with the 2020 Census – a critical tool to help support your community and ensure your patrons get counted and are seen.
Use video chat to be virtually present while patrons fill out census, do their taxes, get set up for telehealth, etc. Use screenshare if they’re struggling and move their mouse for them – just as you might do if you were sitting next to them physically at a library computer.
Description: Your physical library may be closed, but you can still offer direct services to your patrons. With many resources available digitally, and with the ability to provide reference via phone, chat, and virtual meeting tools, your services do not have to halt at a time when they are more important than ever. Please join our expert panel on Thursday, March 26 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern as they offer practical insights on how to make your virtual tools more efficient and how to get them off the ground if they weren’t being provided previously.
I want you all to know that Henry is here. Please keep in touch, and let me know how you’re doing and whether I can be of help! We’re all in this together and we’re going to get through this. And if you are a Texas public library with a Ploud website and need anything, I’m your man.
One of the most crucial, and IMHO, sacred services provided by a school or public library is storytime. I know I don’t need to elaborate on this further for my readership. 🙂
With the technology of artificial intelligence (AI) rapidly becoming more and more sophisticated, it’s no surprise that an AI’s abilities would start to approximate aspects of a library worker’s or storyteller’s talents.
We know the huge value of reading picture books frequently to, and most importantly *with*, preschool children. But what would it mean if AI helped perform this function? Is it an adequate replacement for a parent / caregiver or library staff member reading them a story?
Let’s dig in to the topic! Today’s Highlight is AI and Library Storytime.
I recently learned that local UT iSchool student Julia Sufrin participated in an unusual internship last summer where she helped create an AI that could tell a customizable story to a child. I thought it would be great to moderate a conversation with Julia and ask her some of my questions. Seeing as this is an area where both emerging technology and youth services intersect, I asked my fabulous co-worker BW, our Youth Services Consultant here at TSLAC, to join us.
You can play the video (embedded below) to hear our full, unedited 40 minute conversation, but I’ve also summarized our discussion for today’s Highlight (see below), or if you’re not into the whole brevity thing, you can even read the full transcript. *
* processed into text, I might add, with voice recognition brought to you by an AI using machine learning
Highlights from our Conversation:
Julia has an undergraduate degree in narrative theory and literary theory, and it was this particular background that got her the summer internship with the AI company. She joined a group of software developers and computer engineers to spend ten weeks building a machine that could generate children’s stories based on some preferences that you gave at the beginning and using its artificial intelligence.
Julia explained to BW and me that a lot of children’s stories are formulaic in their structure, which might make them possible to teach a computer system how to generate.
(Julia offered a lot more info about narrative theory and how this all worked with the AI tools she used, so if this interests you, please check out the transcript to read more).
Although still in its infancy stage, the potential for such a tool might mean children could use an AI to have personalized stories read to them, which could be especially useful to have if there are no grownups with a talent for storytelling around them.
At this, a skeptical BW shook her head and voiced her concerns:
“It takes out the interactivity piece between parents and children. There’s no opportunity for dialogic reading, which really allows the adult to prompt, evaluate, expand, and repeat what the child is saying – to prompt them with questions, to interact with them so that they’re understanding how a conversation works, the back and forth of the conversation. And [the child is] being asked questions and prompted to speak during the story. I don’t know how you would program the AI to do that. Even the lack of the person’s mouth to see how words are formed is missing as well, if you don’t have another person involved. And that’s important when you’re building those early literacy skills for children before they begin the process of learning to read.”
Julia agreed with BW, but didn’t think we should avoid the idea altogether:
“I don’t think that humans will ever be phased out of the storytelling relationship with children. I think it’s just so vital to our species to spend time together… and to help [children] through those periods of time. But I do think that we are seeing children interacting with technology from such an early age now that it’s inevitable that there will be some screen time. Unless you make a very serious effort to keep those things from your children, they’ll interact with intelligent agents just by picking up, you know, mom or dad’s phone… And the way I think about it is, sometimes a kid gets parked in front of a TV screen while the parent has to do something else. And in those instances, wouldn’t it be nice as an alternative [or a supplement] to TV… to have some kind of intelligent agent that’s stimulating the child like, [as] you said, ask questions?”
Julia then pointed out that this interactivity is already being incorporated into existing products such as Alexa’s apps for storytelling – where it prompts you for terms like MadLibs and incorporates them into story for you.
BW then asked if the AI would have the ability to answer a question from a child such as, ” What does sad mean?,” because, as BW put it:
“…one of the early literacy concepts is taking a new concept or a new word and likening it to something that the child has experienced. So a parent or a caregiver would be able to do that better than an AI would. And then there’s the opportunity for new vocabulary words in books. You’re going to hear dozens more words than you would hear in a daily conversation, like new words, like complex words. And that’s part of the story writing process for authors – it’s to incorporate as many new words and concepts into those storybooks as possible. I think you could probably program the AI to do that easily. It’s the background knowledge piece that I’m wondering about.”
Julia agreed that it would indeed be difficult to do, as humans have the advantage to draw from their shared lived experience, which the child is a part of. This turned the conversation to talk about sophisticated deep neural networks and the black box aspect of how they work: With artificial intelligence at this deep level, Julia explained:
“…Something goes in, something magical happens inside the black box, and something comes out, and we don’t exactly know how. And so in the stories that we were writing over the summer, if the hero got a sword from the witch in the swamp, I knew exactly why it did that because I programmed it. I wrote the code that taught it that it can go get a sword from the witch in the swamp. With other algorithms that are more sophisticated and they’re taking in a lot more knowledge, what’s happening with the deep neural network is actually it’s observing and learning and teaching itself. And so it becomes near-impossible… for anyone to explain why it did what it did. Coders can’t even look at it. The engineers who wrote the code can’t tell you why it made those decisions.”
We discussed the initiative called Explainable AI which seeks to create AI that can explain why it made its decisions, and then we took a detour to talk briefly about another equally troubling aspect to AI: its current problem of unexpectedly generating misogynistic or racist content because the only data we fed it to make its decisions is from Twitter or the Internet at large – where the most amplified voices are often misogynistic and racist. The AI is only as good as the data it is given. We humans are the ones to blame.
Julia then wondered what would happen if deep neural networks were able to start telling stories themselves. She imagined they would be interesting but also troubling. She mentioned that Google had a visual tool called DeepDream that would render imagery but what it produced came out as weird nightmarish renderings of animals pooling out of each other. Would their stories be equally alien and bizarre?
She also touched upon the concept of the Uncanny Valley, a phenomenon where humans can sense something is wrong with a simulated human. It’s why she thinks humans won’t really allow robots to be around our kids, that it’s more likely we’ll make them look like teddy bears – something as far removed from being human-like as we can get it.
Julia thought we should exercise a lot of caution:
“There’s so much that we don’t understand. I think about the way technology gets released and I compare it to how.. new medication gets released, and medication goes through several rounds of double-blind testing before it ever goes on the market. And Apple invents a new watch and suddenly we’re putting it on our wrists and there’s no long-term research. We don’t understand what is actually happening. And so when it comes to such a vulnerable group like children, and in a space that’s so special, like the library, I imagine we would want to exercise a lot of caution.”
BW brought us back to the topic of AI as a storyteller:
“I think you’re going to run into a lot of issues with AI as a storyteller. I mean, I just touched on a couple of them and I’m not an expert by any means. and the information that I have is from Supercharged Storytimes, which is of course you can take here free through WebJunction – but it teaches you how to weave the early literacy concepts into your story times or into your storytelling. And I’m seeing issues with trying to do that with AI. Interactivity is one of the pillars of Supercharged Storytimes. And the interactivity that we’re looking for is also related to building a relationship with a parent/caregiver on a child. And that wouldn’t happen with an AI. But then, on the flip side, you’re talking about the programming pieces, and I see a lot of opportunity for older children, maybe they don’t want to write the story themselves, but they’re really interested in coding. And if they could create a story that way, they’d be totally on board.”
Julia agreed that coding would be a fun way to get a young adult interested in storytelling and in character development.
We then talked about the capability of AI to learn social emotional skills, feelings and emotions – which led us to a philosophical discussion of the nature of intelligence, whether its instinctual and programmable, how ethics could be taught to an AI, considering how humans already have so many systems of ethical thought themselves.
Julia mentioned an app called AI Buddy – a set of animated characters powered by AI that give support to kids of military personnel deployed to war. Because these children often have to travel around so much, start new schools, make new friends, having the consistency of AI Buddy provides a level of continuity as it talks to the child, remembers things about her and her family – forming something of a friendship. This possibility of AI to provide companionship was of particular interest to Julia.
Talk then turned about the ethical obligations to protect children’s privacy. I mentioned that we’ve already seen horrifying incidents such as CloudPets, a children’s toy that automatically uploaded the child’s voice recording files, as well as personal photos, to a place online that was accessible to anyone without even password protection. We also discussed persistent recognition systems, how they’re being used as witnesses in criminal cases BW joked that : “This conversation really went all over the place!”
I then envisioned the possibility of a picture book that could not only generate and read a personalized story to child, but also fashion illustrations to accompany the text – all completely on-the-fly, with AI and digital paper.
BW liked the idea, and thought it could maybe be incorporated into a storytime, still tying it to and utilizing some of the early literacy concepts. She continued:
“Part of learning about how a book works is to follow along, put your finger under the words so that the kids understand how text works. So even to have the words starting to appear under the finger, [the caregiver could say] “It’s going this way” – so [the child] can see it visually appearing on the page and [in] that direction… Or to mimic phonetics, the sounds. So sometimes the words are bigger so you make your voice bigger, or sometimes they make the word ‘bounce’ look like something that’s bouncing, [which would help] kids… understand the concept of bounce, for example.”
Julia also thought it would make for a great opportunity to teach children digital literacy – about who exactly is writing and reading them a story, the differences between an AI and a human, and about identity and subjectivity – providing background knowledge, which, as BW repeated, is a big part of early literacy best practices.
As an aside, I made the point that AI developers should really be working directly with library staff. So much of this is our domain.
Furthermore, I argued, the best stories will always come from humans anyway.
“Over the summer I kept waiting for the system to surprise me… and unfortunately… I wasn’t ever really surprised. It’s coming from the past. It’s coming from the data we gave it before.
I will say that after spending the summer doing this project and thinking really hard about: ‘What are stories? What do they do?’ How do we make them good? What is a good story? What’s a satisfying story?’, I left wanting to, you know, spend more time writing. It stimulated me creatively, in my own sort of storytelling capacity. And because the entire internship was such a good story: All the people I met and the tools we used. But… I didn’t walk away from it fearing AI would corner the publishing industry and start generating all the new stories. I think it’s possible to generate the way that Babysitter’s Club books are generated – by ghost writers and stuff. Because there’s a formula. ‘[Hey, do you need] formulaic stuff? Sure, AI can do it.’ I think that kids are a little bit more clever. I think kids want new things. They want things that speak to their context and their moment. And children’s authors do that already with picture books and the stuff they include. So I think that AI will increasingly be used as another tool or medium for very talented humans to express their creativity.”
BW gave the final thought:
“I think you just nailed it with that. It’s not about the AI, it’s how it can be used to further some things. So it is the tool. It’s the vehicle, the vehicle for creating.”
A big thank you to our special guest Julia for the fascinating talk!
Hi there, Henry here.This month’s High-Tech Highlight is a special edition for the new year. I wanted to share a fun project of mine where I took three World War II recruitment posters and updated them (via Photoshop) to help highlight some of the new technology roles that modern library staff should adopt today.
But first, some background: The inspiration for this project stemmed from a promotional graphic I created back in 2014 for TSLAC’s You Can Do I.T. (YCDIT) technology training program. For the workshop series’ logo, I updated the iconic Rosie the Riveter image from the World War II propaganda poster. Re-dubbing her “I.T. Heidi”, I made her a TSLAC shade of blue, gave her a library symbol badge, and modified her flexing arm to proudly show off an ethernet cable. For my co-worker Cindy Fisher, who spearheaded YCDIT, I fashioned an action figure to take on the road as a kind of mascot, and we had a lot of fun asking participants to flex their arm, hold up a cable, and strike the ‘Heidi Pose’ for our cameras.
Recently, I was remembering those experiences and how empowering the image of I.T. Heidi was, just like her grandmother Rosie. I began musing about similar ways to encourage library staff to embrace the new technology roles that the profession has been rapidly adopting. World War II recruitment posters, like Rosie’s, encouraged American women to join the war effort by becoming workers in munitions factories, and I wondered if the same patriotic messaging style could be updated for today’s library staff with regard to technology.
Below are three examples with this idea in mind. Note that the ones on the left are the original recruitment posters, and those on the right are my updated library tech versions.
Poster # 1: Teaching technology is a patriotic duty
“Your Country Needs You.”
The Second World War necessitated the recruitment of courageous American women to roll up their sleeves and work in factories. Their contributions and service to the country are irrefutable. Although not to serve a war effort, modern library staff also need to become trailblazers and bravely step out of their comfort zones and take on work they haven’t traditionally been involved with. To ensure the vitality of the U.S. economy, there’s a need to provide American citizens of all ages opportunities to engage with STEM/STEAM programming as well as learn computer and coding skills. Libraries are crucial community partners in this effort and a great resource to support patrons in gaining the tech skills essential to future employment and civic participation. Think of it as a patriotic duty to teach technology.
Further reading on how libraries are currently teaching technology:
Poster # 2: Broadband is a library service equal to books
“Get ’em to read, get ’em high speed”
Improving the literacy of a community is a cornerstone of what libraries do, and it always will be. Libraries should unashamedly continue to be buildings filled with books, and library staff should be motivated to put those books in people’s hands to read. Humanity’s future relies on it. But there’s something new added to this already successful, civilization-saving mix that can’t be denied: broadband
For my second poster, I decided to start with the traditional image of a library staff member gripping a gateway book (in my case: “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”) and gazing with determined purpose at a group of youth with whom she hopes to foster a life-long love of reading. Then I added an ethernet cable to her other hand to give it equal weight in her objective. Providing free high speed Internet has become an important and critical service for libraries. The Homework Gap is preventing children who lack adoption of broadband at home to succeed in school. Libraries act as bridges, reaching across the divide to connect patrons to the information and services they need, even if it means providing a safe, Internet-connected place to get their homework done. Literacy now takes many forms: digital, media, information, etc. And libraries can boost their signal strength out into their communities in more ways than one.
Further reading on how libraries are getting folks high speed Internet access, and what they can do with it:
When disasters, emergencies, and other crises strike, libraries stand strong in their communities as anchor institutions to provide immediate support. Besides acting as safe spaces for people to share news and resources, they are trusted curators of authoritative, often life-saving, information. The free electricity, WiFi, and computer access can be a crucial life-line to those who need it, particularly disadvantaged populations. Libraries also connect the affected to essential services, helping them fill out e-government forms. They help alleviate confusion and disorientation and provide distractions and entertainment so community members can take the necessary steps toward recovery.
It’s also worth nothing that it’s not just in the event of disasters that libraries respond and provide refuge They’re fair weather friends, too, and like Elsa, cold never bothered them anyway.
Further reading on how libraries can develop disaster response:
Hi there, Henry here! Last year, on this hair-raising holiday, I highlighted a double dose of dreadful technologies to scare the smart pants off you. This time around, I’m going to escalate the eeriness up to eleven by trick-or-treating you to a triple threat of alarming innovations. Today’s highlights are:
1. Smart Dust, what’s that?
It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but it’s real and just around the corner, soon to be billowing our way. Computers can be made the size of a grain of dust and light enough to float in the air. These clouds of smart dust can monitor the environment, gather data, and even take photographs.
The microelectromechanical (that’s a mouthful) systems (MEMS) may end up being self-powered too, harvesting energy using passive WiFi and the heat from our bodies
Here are more powers the potent particles may possess:
Help with energy efficiency and environmental comfort in buildings
Measure air quality
Monitor crops and status of equipment
Assist with health and medicine: e.g. doctors can diagnose without surgery; inhale smart dust instead of having an endoscope inserted
Of course, the dark side of the dust is that these undetectable particles could be used to track us. It’s not hard to imagine them being used for security, wirelessly monitoring people and products.
One day soon we may be seeing signs up that warn us:
“SMILE, the DUST is WATCHING.”
2. WiFi Recognition, what’s that?
WiFi recognition is when WiFi and radio waves can track our physical movements and emotional states. Transmitters send out signals, and as we move through the signals, a device can see the signals bouncing off us and onto other objects. This allows the device to effectively see through the wall and track our movements. And the device can even tell we’re feeling freaked out by that. More on its empathic powers in a bit.
Here’s something appropriate for the season: MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) has invented a way to recreate our skeleton via WiFi. Spooky!
It actually looks like this:
There are myriad uses for WiFi recognition. If health metrics are collected by our router, imagine it communicating with our smart home and automatically adjusting the appliances accordingly so we lead healthier lives. Or imagine a baby monitor that also collects the infant’s vital signs. It could also know we’re snoring and what state of sleep we’re in, thereby helping us with our sleep habits. Thanks for the health hacks, all-knowing WiFi!
Maybe our emotionally intelligent WiFi routers will see how angry we get when they stop working and begin to apologize for once.
3. Digital Clone, what’s that?
Generally we think of digital clones as the ones used in special effects in TV and movies: a fake, computer-generated version of, say, Tom Cruise, is made to appear hanging onto the side of a plane. Wait, that’s a bad example since I think Tom Cruise does a lot of his own stunts. Anyway, there’s another kind of digital cloning that doesn’t need a body to be represented. A personal chatbot or mebot is a deployable AI version of you. They learn from you and then represent you online. Conduct an interview, ask them anything, and your digital clone will behave just like you. Your friends can ask it questions if they don’t want to bother you or might be embarrassed by the line of inquiry. Now you no longer need to reach out directly to a person for certain pieces of information. For example, you could ask a clone:
Do you have any food allergies or special dietary needs?
What was your famous chocolate cookie recipe again?
How are you feeling today? (If health metrics are involved and your partner is the clone, you could determine, without bothering the real person, what their current stress level is and see if they are up to visiting the in-laws.)
What did you eat for breakfast this morning? Or where did you buy that dress? Works great for celebrities who can’t possibly answer every random question from fans.
All three of these technologies are likely to cause a shiver to run down our spines. That’s okay. It’s good to be scared. It means we’re aware. It’s our job as library staff to heroically face down the horrors and negative side effects of potentially problematic emerging technologies on the behalf of our communities. When that tech with ethically questionable capabilities appears, look it right in the eye and seek to better understand the monster lurking inside. Remember: knowledge is power. And libraries can make a difference ensuring that our students and patrons are well-equipped and informed to make the right choices, have protected free speech, right to privacy – all that good stuff. We can’t do that if we put our heads in the sand.
So keep your heads up high, heroes!
And HAPPY HALLOWEEN, everyone!
P.S. My recent webinar on Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality and libraries is now available for your viewing pleasure! Just click below to be taken to the shortcourse page that contains the archived recording link. Remember to log in and enroll if you want to receive 1 CE credit.