New technology training and grant opportunity for small and rural Texas libraries

black and white graphic of school with computer monitor showing a heart in the doorway

The Texas State Library and Archives Commission is excited to announce that applications for a third year to apply for Library Technology Academy are now open! This opportunity is a training and grant program for libraries serving populations of 30,000 or less.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, access to technology and the internet is vital to living a robust and connected life and libraries have always been at the center of ensuring community connection. But many libraries struggle with keeping technology updated, communicating its value to stakeholders, and ensuring technology purchases meet unique community needs. This is where Library Technology Academy comes in!

What is the Library Technology Academy training grant?

Taught by nationally renowned library technologist, Carson Block, participants will go through an 8-week online training program, at the end of which they’ll devise a technology project that meets their community’s unique needs. Each library will then receive up to $10,000 in the form of a reimbursement grant to implement their proposed project.

Recent projects have included:

  • Implementing a self-service checkout station
  • Developing a WiFi hotspot lending program
  • Creating a digital memory lab
  • Engaging teens with gaming
  • Implementing a mobile classroom
  • Engaging the ESL community with translation technology

What will I learn at Library Technology Academy?
Participants will:

  • Learn how to consider their community’s needs when purchasing technology
  • Learn how to be strategic in maintaining and sustaining library technology using tried and true technology practices, templates and procedures;
  • Learn how to craft data-informed grant project proposals;
  • Connect with other small and rural libraries in Texas to learn and share successes and challenges

Testimonials from past participants:

“The Library Technology Academy was instrumental in guiding my limited knowledge of technology to a higher level. Although I was meeting online with many technologically savvy librarians and their colleagues, I never felt inadequate.  From a small, rural library, one-person view, I knew that this class would give the small community in which I work the opportunity to come into the 21st century. Thank you both for this invaluable opportunity, and I continue to grow in knowledge and understanding because of this.” Marianne McGinnis, Director of the Charlotte Public Library, Charlotte, Texas (pop. 3,965)

“The Library Technology Academy has been a game changer for our Library! Like most libraries we have always tried to look to the future when planning for the best technology to meet the needs of our community but have hesitated to try anything to new. My favorite part about the tech academy is that we were counseled by “experts” in both technology and library services. This program really taught us to dig deep and think about solutions and technology possibilities that we would have been too scared to consider before. Having colleagues to bounce ideas off was such a fun part of the program.”  — Andria Heiges, Director of Nancy Carol Roberts Memorial Library, Brenham, Texas (pop. 16,951).

How to Apply:
Applications are open from August 31 – September 28, 2020.
For more information, including requirements and eligibility, please refer to the  Library Technology Academy webpage!  Or take a virtual tour of the resources by watching this video.

When does it start?

The online training will run from mid-October – early December 2020. It will consist of the following:

  • Intensive LIVE introductory training:
    • Monday, October 19th: 10am – 4pm and Friday, October 23, 10am – 1pm
       
  • Weekly LIVE one-hour trainings during the following weeks: October 26 through December 14.
    The day and time of the training will be decided by participant consensus after attendees meet for the introductory training.

Contact Information:

If you need assistance with the application process or have further questions, please contact Cindy Fisher, Digital Inclusion Consultant and Library Technology Academy program manager, at cfisher@tsl.texas.gov

This project is made possible by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to TSLAC under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

Help Us Build a Map of Free WiFi in Texas

Map of texas with WiFi points; description of joint project between TSLAC, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, and Texas Legal Services Center.

Texans need WiFi access and we need your help building an authoritative map of free WiFi locations in Texas!  

If your library offers freely accessible WiFi that individuals can connect to outside as well as inside of the building, we encourage you to fill out the below form. The information you provide will populate a map that will be shared publicly with Texans needing free WiFi access. 

Fill out this short form to add your organization to the map: https://arcg.is/0TOPvu0
*If you have multiple branches for your library location, please fill out the form for each branch.
*Please provide as much specific information about each individual location as possible, including library hours and places where WiFi is easily reachable. Fill out the form as if you were someone who had never visited your library before.
*Help us avoid duplicate submissions by checking to see if your location has already been added. View the live map here

The interactive tool provides Texans with the following information for each WiFi hotspot:

  • Instructions on how to access the WiFi network map
  • WiFi hours of operation
  • Additional nearby services
  • Options to view the map in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, as well as a mobile-friendly version

The form will take less than 5 minutes to complete. We ask that you fill out the form promptly so that we can get the information to those who need it. Together, we can help connect Texans to the internet during a highly sensitive time. 

This is a joint project of the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, Texas Legal Services Center / TexasLawHelp.com, and Texas RioGrande Legal Aid. For more information or for questions, please email the project team at TexasWifiMap@tlsc1.org. If you have library-specific questions, feel free to contact me at cfisher@tsl.texas.gov.

For more information on how libraries can support digital inclusion initiatives like this one, visit https://www.tsl.texas.gov/ld/tech/digitalinclusion.

HHH: Fiber

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

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?]

Computer-generated rendering of cylindrical robot on powerlines above an inhabited rural area.
Source: Facebook

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.

Cover image of the book, Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution―and Why America Might Miss It, by Susan Crawford

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.

Fiber/5G also allows for artificial intelligence (AI), driverless vehicles and personalized transportation, neural interfaces, persistent recognition systems, esports, and wearables.

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.” 


Needed now

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.

Library Fiber for Victory!

Back in January, for this Highlights series, I created a set of updated World War II posters to empower library staff about using technology. 

For this month’s post, I’ve fashioned a new poster to drive home the need for more fiber in our efforts to close the digital divide as COVID-19 challenges us further:

On the left, original poster shows  soldiers carrying lumber beams to a bridge that's under construction over a river in the background. Other soldiers are defending an attack and an explosion has occurred in the river near the bridge. One soldier is facing the viewer has his hand up to his open mouth. Caption below says "KEEP THAT LUMBER COMING!".  On the right, new poster shows same soldiers now wearing the safety helmets and vests of public utility workers, and instead of carrying lumber, they're carrying fiberoptic cable which is being laid on the bridge.  The explosion in the water is labeled "COVID-19" and the gap in the bridge on the river is labeled, "DIGITAL DIVIDE". The yelling soldier facing the front now sports a badge with the library symbol on it.  Caption below says "KEEP THAT FIBER COMING!"
On the left, the original war-time poster; On the right, my modern update. Note the librarian issuing the clarion call.
Bigger version of new poster (Soldiers now wearing the safety helmets and vests of public utility workers carrying fiberoptic cable which is being laid on a halfway constructed bridge over a river.  The explosion in the water is labeled "COVID-19" and the gap in the bridge on the river is labeled, "DIGITAL DIVIDE". The yelling soldier facing the front  sports a badge with the library symbol on it.  Caption below says "KEEP THAT FIBER COMING!")

Additional resources

Library Technology for Contactless Service

[Interested in learning more about how libraries are ensuring patrons still get their needs met through library technology in the age of COVID-19? Sign up for an interactive discussion facilitated by TSLAC on August 18, 2-3:30 p.m. CDT: “Texas Technology Chat – Library Technology for Contactless Service” (1.5 hr CE credit). Register here.]

Originally, before the pandemic, new contactless technologies such as self-service kiosks and patron print management tools were developed for use in libraries for two main reasons:

  1. Make staff more efficient at their job
  2. Provide extra convenience for patrons

Depending on a library’s size or situation, implementing these features could be seen as merely perks, even unnecessary frills. They were often just nice add-ons, ways to make the library feel more modern and state-of-the-art.

It wasn’t too hard to level criticism at these particular contactless services back then. They could be considered barriers to connection between the library and the community it served. Using them meant patrons had little to no interaction with staff, thought to be the heart of the library. The concern was patrons might lose that personal touch that should go with library services, and the library itself would become more remote and distant. Soulless, automated machines would serve as the face of the library, replacing the crucial community-building work of friendly, caring, and human staff. Beyond the thinking in this regard, there was the added expense and staff training sometimes needed to implement this new technology. And for many, it was seen as an unnecessary reliance on new technology to perform library services that had traditionally been done by hand (and quite well, thank you) for as long as libraries have been around. 


And then the pandemic happened.


We’re seeing now that there is suddenly a new purpose to these contactless technologies: safety! No longer are they nice perks; they’re necessary and potentially life-saving.

One can now add the following reasons to implement:

  1. Prevent close social interaction with staff
  2. Prevent patrons from waiting in line or being forced to gather in small spaces with other patrons
  3. Allow patrons to minimize time in the library as much as possible

Efficiency (reason # 1) is even more important now if libraries are experiencing staff loss or volunteers being let go. With brand new safety measures and pandemic-related services to be performed, staff have less time to handle the basic services of circulation, public access computer management, printing, etc. To list just a few of the added tasks: clean surfaces repeatedly, fill curbside orders, present virtual programs, assist patrons phoning in to make appointments to come into the building, etc., etc.

Photo of library staff behind reference desk wearing face masks.
Photo details

One big change is there often needs to be less public access computers due to spacing requirements, ensuring patrons stay six feet apart. Having less computers means more demand, so a library needs a new system in place, if there wasn’t one already, that sets reservations and enforces time limits  –or needs to include more portable computers like laptops and tablets so patrons can use these devices throughout the space to stay socially distant from one another. 

To sum up: self-service used to mean efficiency and convenience. Now self-service equals safety

Decades ago, with the emergence of computers and networks, libraries had a significant phase of automation to convert their card catalogs to OPACs and ILSs. Now we are entering the Second Age of Automation. It’s not only the catalogs, but every library service that needs to become automated to make it contactless and safe.

To help guide you through this new technological age we’re living in now, Digital Inclusion Consultant Cindy Fisher and I (with the help of our new Continuing Education Support Specialist Tomas Mendez —thanks, Tomas!) have put together a list of products for contactless services.

Icon for Google Doc

Google Doc Link : Library Tech for Contactless Service

We organized them by the following service areas:

  • Circulation
  • Curbside
  • Returns
  • Document management (print, scan, fax, email)
  • Fund transference
  • Public computer use
  • Reference, patron assistance, information/research help
  • Third party virtual programming software (by subject)
  • General building safety

Here are a few of the innovative highlights from the grid that may not have occurred to some:

  • To make curbside more efficient for staff and convenient for patrons, deploy 24/7 smart lockers outside of the library building for patrons to retrieve their holds.
  • If a staff member can’t position themselves next to a patron’s computer nor physically take control of their mouse and keyboard to assist them, screen mirroring software can be employed, even on the staff member’s personal tablet held at least six feet away.
  • For a scenario with the least amount of contact possible within the building, patrons can bring their own device to the library and use an app to not only scan the desired materials for check-out themselves, but even automatically desensitize the RFID labels/detection strips via the same app before exiting. 
  • With the complete loss of in-house programming, employ third-party, resource-rich  online software to help conduct them virtually. This could be for social gaming, crafting, coding, to name a few. There are also services to provide live one-on-one job search coaching and homework tutoring for your patrons at their homes.

If you’d like to discuss the topic of library tech for contactless service further, please join our free interactive discussion webinar on August 18, 2-3:30 p.m. (all library types and sizes welcome!). We hope to see you there!

COVID-19 & Tech: VR/AR

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


Despite the lockdowns, quarantines, and closures, the technologies of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) (previously highlighted in my HHH blog post series) have not been placed on the backburner during the pandemic.

Three areas where we use VR/AR more are to help us with our shopping, to encourage social distancing (while alleviating us of boredom), and to attend live concerts socially.


RETAIL & AR

When brick-and-mortar retail locations were closed and completely inaccessible, it meant browsing and shopping had to be done online. Retailers who deployed AR to assist shoppers benefitted from a 19% spike in customer engagement with customers becoming 90% more likely to buy when engaging with AR versus those that didn’t.  (Source: Vertebrae). 

Why this sudden love for AR? There are a few reasons. Shoppers need to make more considerations before making purchases, and as they can’t go to the store and actually check out the merchandise themselves in person, they are more amenable to things like 3D & AR to answer their questions and give them the info and confidence they need to buy. It helps that most are using their mobile devices to shop, rather than their workplace computers as they would have before, as AR is designed for mobile; for example, you move your smartphone camera around and see products superimposed within your home – something impossible to do with your computer at work.  When you’re already stuck at home while shopping, you might as well directly use your immediate living space to help you make the decision. And retailers have begun to notice. Recently, Etsy launched an AR app for iOS for the first time, allowing shoppers to preview potential art on the walls of their home.

Photo of a smartphone  pointing at a blank wall; the screen shows a work of art from Etsy appearing as if on the wall

SOCIAL DISTANCING & AR

Existing AR games like the massively popular Pokemon Go pivoted completely as soon as the pandemic arrived in the U.S. They changed their game mechanics to support and encourage social distancing. For example, more monsters were programmed to show up near the player’s house, competitions that used to require being near other players could now be played remotely, and anything in the game that pushed the player to travel out in the world and engage with other places (normally one of the mainstays of the game) was removed.  

Promotional image of "Pokémon Go Fest 2020" showing a photo of someone's backyard and cartoon Pokémon characters appearing. I have added a bunch of silly speech bubbles to make the charcaters ay, "Wash your hands!", "Avoid other humans", "Please don't leave your backyard!" and "Stay safe!"

As a piece of entertainment, Pokemon Go is designed as a diversion for its players, a way of gamifying the real world. As part of the fun, it encouraged players to interact with the environments around them in new ways (spotting, battling, and collecting monsters). So it’s interesting that the game adapted to the real world circumstances that prohibited people from interacting with their spaces in the same way as before. In fact, they actively performed the positive role of encouraging the same environmental interactions towards safety.


LIVE CONCERTS & VR

As a result of COVID-19, any kind of location-based entertainment had to be shuttered, and it’s taking time for many to reopen for attendees to visit again.  Live concerts are one thing that’s been able to continue in a new form via Virtual Reality.

One popular social VR venue, The Wave, recently announced partnerships with Warner Music Group and Jay-Z’s Roc Nation to produce concerts with their rosters of talent—a clear sign the music industry has embraced this technology. Virtual, live-streamed entertainment have actually become a new source of income for musicians and their labels. It’s cheap for the audience to attend, and the artist stands to make a lot more money than the traditional, in-person shows.

Animation showing a violinist in a motion capture suit performing live as a virtual avatar performs for a audience during a VR concert.

Besides the three examples above, AR/VR technology can help us in other ways during this time. As XR researcher and author Helen Papagiannis recently described:

  • It brings the outside world in (for example, take a virtual vacation tour of a famous landmark or distant location).
  • It helps us transform our immediate surroundings into totally new spaces that help us with learning, work and entertainment. You can use AR to make your living room function as your office.
  • It helps people feel less isolated in their homes – either with actual people via social chat and meeting programs, or by interacting with virtual humans.
  • It can educate and inform about the pandemic, helping us understand how it works and its impact. We’ve seen VR/AR projects that help people visualize the effects of climate change and air pollution (link forthcoming). Imagine experiences that show us how the virus spread and was contained, or the impact of nationwide lockdowns on the environment, for example.

THE FUTURE:

Here are three things to look forward to with regard to AR/VR:

Photo showing a man wearing Facebook's proof-of-concept AR glasses that resemble sunglasses.

1) We’re not done yet with innovations in this area. Just last week, Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) showed off a proof-of-concept pair of AR goggles that look like a compact sunglasses. No more big, blocky boxes strapped to the front of our faces. The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades.

Animation of a man pointing to his sunglasses while singing. The lyrics "The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades" are superimposed.

2) If you’re getting tired of working at home, staring at your flat computer screen for hours on end, and attending all those work meetings on Zoom, you can look forward to VR providing you your collaborative workplace some day soon. Products like Rumii give us a chance to ditch our webcams and escape our distracting home environments. The idea is we’ll feel like we’re immersively inhabiting an office space with our co-workers. Plus, it will facilitate social distance and safety if necessary.

3) And lastly, coming soon, XR Libraries has used their recent experience of running an Emergency Workers POP-UP Childcare Center to develop socially distanced protocols for cleaning and use of XR. These new safety guidelines will allow libraries to continue providing XR (Extended Reality) experiences for their patrons.

Image showing an senior citizen using VR to view the pyramids. She's wearing a face mask and gloves.

HHH: Humanitronics

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

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:

Two puppets of a bull and a lion propped up in a small decorated set, with labels in front of them showing famous names from history.
???

Puppets. Propped up within a tiny decorated stage. Then a switch was flicked, and they were turned on.

Animated gif of the bull and lion puppets talking on their own (no puppeteers)

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:

Humanitronics = Humanities + Animation + Electronics

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:

An animated gif showing Baby Yoda waving.

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.

Animated gif showing students building the puppet frame.

They learn about wiring and circuitry (electrical engineering) to control the servo motors in their animatronics.

Animated gif of a student setting up the wiring to a circuit, with the chyron below: "Power and control your motors by wiring circuits."

They design, build, and decorate their sets, learning woodworking and interior design

Animated gif showing students working on their sets using scissors on fabric and a power drill on wood.

.

They get experience with coding and robotics as they record their lip-synced puppetry performance within their set.

Animated gif showing a zebra puppet with the animatronic puppet frame inside being controlled by a student at a computer.

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.

Animated gif showing class gathered with their projects with the chyron below: "Every job is needed to create the show"

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.

COVID-19 & Tech: Wearables

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


A bevy of wearables are being developed to help curb the effects of the disease. Here are a few examples and their intended uses:

To support social distancing

Collage of various safety devices that help enforce social distancing.

In many places, social distancing guidelines must be followed or COVID-19 will spread more quickly. Companies are releasing safety devices, usually worn around the wrist like a bracelet, that alert the wearer when another person comes within six feet, usually with a vibration or buzzing.


To conduct contract tracing in the workplace

Some of the devices have more robust features and come with a whole suite for an organization to deploy among their staff. They not only buzz employees to support social distancing, they maintain a record of those interactions. They also enable employees to self-report when symptoms develop. This allows HR to quickly and efficiently set up any necessary quarantines.

Furthermore, these wearables connect to special software, a contract tracing dashboard, that allows employers to locate and support those at risk and protect the whole workforce.


To emit UVC light to destroy pathogens

Here’s a wearable that fights back. A collar is being developed that emits UVC light, destroying the virus around a person before they can breathe it in.


To continuously measure vital signs to predict and track disease

Researchers at Northwestern University and Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago are developing a flexible skin-mounted device that sits at one’s throat to continuously measure vital signs to catch the disease and monitor its course. These are being specifically designed for frontline healthcare workers, the elderly, and other higher risk individuals.


All of the above are new devices… but what about the wearables people might already own, such as smartwatches?

It looks likely that smartwatches will be making a big come-back.

I wrote about persistent recognition systems last year for my ‘Henry’s High-Tech Highlights’ series. The pairing of that technology with wearables is poised to have a powerful impact on our personal and public health. When you have sensors on you that measure you all the time – and they are connected to artificial intelligence and Big Data, there’s an opportunity to tie decision-making to your own individual metrics and this results in personalized medicine. It means we will have an all new and far more effective way to predict and treat health issues early.

A wearable like a smartwatch allows for constant tracking at the personalized level to determine the actual baselines for individuals, rather than having to compare to an average or standard. Take heart rate, for example. A new study out of Stanford University is working on employing wearable devices to help curb the spread of the viral COVID-19. Noticing that elevated heartrates have been measured from those about to contract the COVID-19 disease, the Stanford team began focusing on ways to harness smartwatches and other wearables to figure out how to detect the disease before symptoms even occur (or never occur, as is the case with those who are asymptomatic).

They’ve begun training their algorithms to notice the unusual, but tell-tale, signatures of heart rate and other factors – all with baselines unique to each individual – that mean the immune system is acting up in that person’s specific instance. The algorithm will know its specifically tracked person is about to get sick, even if they are asymptomatic and wouldn’t otherwise show signs. The smartwatch knows, however, and can give alerts to stay home that day.

I always thought digital watches were a cool invention. I even thought in the future we’d have the Dick Tracy-style ones with the video screens to talk to one another, but who knew watches would grow up one day to save humanity from pandemics?


Further reading:

HHH: Discord and Twitch

Logo for Henry's Hightech Highlights

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…

Clip art of a highlighter pen,

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:

  • Book clubs
  • Dungeons & Dragons games
  • Genealogy workshops
  • Internal staff communication
  • Professional discussions

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.

Animated gif of someone Twitch-streaming Fortnite on Twitch.
Source: NY Times

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.

Animation showing a drummer playing his drums on Twitch while people respond over chat.

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:

  • Support an eSports program
  • 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 Pamela Van Halsema from San Antonio Public Library. Besides giving a great overview, itcovers many of the emerging best practices for those libraries wishing to use Discord and Twitch themselves.

> Presentation recording (MP4, 30 mins): Twitch & Discord in Public Libraries: New Opportunities for Adult Services


Has your library done anything with Twitch or Discord, especially during the pandemic? Let me know. I’d love to hear about it.

A big thanks to LDN Office Assistant Tomas Mendez for his help developing the content for this month’s highlight!

COVID-19 & Tech: Artificial Intelligence

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.


Today I’d like to point out nine ways that ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE (AI) is getting deployed to assist with the current crisis.

(For more general info about AI with a focus on libraries, check out my post for Henry’s High-Tech Highlights from last year.)


1. AI TO SNIFF OUT OUTBREAKS

Illustration that shows an AI identifying the COVID-19 disease after scanning various outside information sources looking for signs.
AI scans social media, news reports, search queries, etc. for signs of disease outbreaks

Apparently, it was an AI that sniffed out COVID-19 and sounded the alarm before any humans did at the end of December.

Science Magazine (5/12/2020): “Artificial intelligence systems aim to sniff out signs of COVID-19 outbreaks

“The international alarm about the COVID-19 pandemic was sounded first not by a human, but by a computer. HealthMap, a website run by Boston Children’s Hospital, uses artificial intelligence (AI) to scan social media, news reports, internet search queries, and other information streams for signs of disease outbreaks. On 30 December 2019, the data-mining program spotted a news report of a new type of pneumonia in Wuhan, China. The one-line email bulletin noted that seven people were in critical condition and rated the urgency at three on a scale of five.”


2. AI TO SEARCH FOR A CURE

Illustration that shows an AI identifying a potential drug treatment after scanning drug industry dat and scientific research papers.
AI scans scientific research papers to identify potential drug treatments.

Wired (4/17/2020): “AI Uncovers a Potential Treatment for Covid-19 Patients

“The company has created a kind of search engine on steroids that combines drug industry data with nuggets gleaned from scientific research papers. Using the software, Richardson had identified a rheumatoid arthritis drug that might dampen some of the most severe effects of the new virus, an illness now known as Covid-19.”

Google’s DeepMind is also working on understanding the structure of the virus’s associated proteins to learn how it functions, and this could lead to the development of a vaccine or cure.


3. AI TO TRACK HOW INFECTION SPREADS

Illustration that shows an AI tracking how the infection is spreading in a region to assist in halting or containing it.
AI can track how the infection is spreading in a region to help in real-time efforts to halt or contain it.

Bruegel (3/23/2020): “Artificial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19

“…In Belgium, datasets from telecoms operators are combined with health data under the supervision of the Belgian Data Protection Authority in order to generate aggregate and anonymised regional-level datasets that can be used to assess how the virus spreads and which areas are high risk. Similar initiatives are underway in other countries. The real value of these efforts is that digital technologies can offer monitoring in real-time, enabling authorities to be more proactive.”


4. AI TO SCREEN POPULATIONS

Illustration showing an AI remotely testing a population of people for fever and potential signs of the disease.
An AI can test hundreds of people at a time for fever.

Bruegel (3/23/2020): “Artificial intelligence in the fight against COVID-19

“Screening the population to identify who is potentially ill is crucial for containing COVID-19. In China, which was hit first, traditional infrared imaging scanners and handheld thermometers were introduced in multiple public locations, especially in Beijing. Chinese AI champion firms have now introduced more advanced AI-powered temperature screening systems in places including subway and railway stations. The advantage of these systems is that they can screen people from a distance and within minutes can test hundreds of individuals for fever.”


5. AI TO IDENTIFY AND REMOVE CONTENT WITH PSEUDO-SCIENTIFIC AND DANGEROUS MISINFORMATION

Illustration of AI recognizing a dangerous hoax being perpetuated online and removing it from the view of a susceptible consumer.
Besides the virus itself, another kind of infection spread in society are the

Besides the virus itself, another form of infection spread in society are the harmful scams and life-threatening “snake oils” being pushed by the unscrupulous onto the vulnerable. Companies like YouTube and Twitter routinely remove content that violates their policies in this regard, but with staff out of their offices and social distancing, AI is being relied on to perform this task (and far less accurately than real humans). In the future, we will likely see more and more sophisticated AI taking over this job.

Broadband Breakfast (3/17/2020):

“YouTube will be relying on AI to take down content policy violations as the coronavirus spreads… Google, which owns YouTube and typically relies on humans to identify violating content, is now transitioning to less accurate automated tools as of Monday in an attempt to reduce the need for people to come into its offices. Some of the content that YouTube employees remove are videos that offer pseudo-scientific and dangerous misinformation regarding the spread and treatment of coronavirus. Twitter on Monday announced a similar policy that will use AI content moderators, but that it would not ban any users based solely on that enforcement scheme.”


6. AI TO DETECT THE DISEASE FROM YOUR VOICE

Illustration of an AI hearing a person speaking and determining the person has COVID-19.
An AI diagnosing COVID-19 after listening to a person’s voice.

In my post highlighting persistent recognition systems, I described how these listening AI systems could diagnose conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, bipolar disorder, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and cardiac arrest – all based on voice dat. Now the same technology is being applied to COVID-19.

Business Insider (4/30/2020): “Do I sound sick to you? Researchers are building AI that would diagnose COVID-19 by listening to people talk”


7. AI TO ALERT YOU TO SEEK MEDICAL HELP

Illustration of an AI alerting someone to seek medical help.
After an AI knows you’ve contracted the virus, it can alert you to seek medical help.

Currently, we rely on people themselves to understand the signs of the disease and determine if they personally should seek help. This helpful tool could potentially save many lives.


8. AI TO GET YOU TO TREATMENT FASTER (ESPECIALLY IN RURAL AREAS)

Illustration showing an AI acting as an assistant to guide COVID-19 patients to the nearest treatment they require.
An AI streamlines the process by connecting patients to the nearest treatment in their area.

Mashable (4/21/2020):

“Clearstep’s app is meant to streamline the healthcare process by giving rural areas quicker access to COVID-19 treatment.”

With so much information need out there regarding the pandemic, there aren’t enough customer support staff out there to handle all the questions. AI can step in and take on this role to supplement providing this crucial information service.

For example, Google’s created AI virtual agents for businesses to utilize.

From Google Cloud blog (5/6/2020): “How Cloud AI is helping during COVID-19

“In early April, we launched the Rapid Response Virtual Agents program to help organizations that have been inundated with customer questions about the pandemic. The program helps businesses quickly build and implement a customized Contact Center AI virtual agent to respond to customer questions via chat or voice allowing customers to get 24/7 support.”


9. AI TO SPEED UP LOAN DISPERSALS TO PEOPLE WHO NEED THEM

Illustration showing an AI making the process to disperse loans much faster for a financial institution.
An AI makes the process to disperse loans much faster for a financial institution.

From Google Cloud blog (5/1/2020): “Business continuity planning and resilience in financial services during COVID-19 and beyond

“Leveraging artificial intelligence, we’ve created an end-to-end solution that speeds up the time-to-decision on loans and helps inform lenders’ liquidity analysis—from the initial application submission to the underwriting process and SBA validation.”

COVID-19 & Tech: Robots

On Fridays I plan to spotlight an emerging technology that has been pushed by the COVID-19 pandemic into more mainstream use, sometimes in ways that may seem surreal.

ROBOTS: They’re perfect for doing jobs that are too dangerous for humans to do. So now is the perfect time to deploy them for a variety of helpful tasks and potentially save lives.

Illustration of a robot with the phrase "Onward Robots!" above.
T-shirt design by Chris Ware (Yes, I own this shirt and still wear it.)

Here are some key ways that robots have been, and will continue to be, used during the COVID-19 pandemic.


DELIVERY

To send out groceries and supplies.

Photos of neighborhood delivery robots
Source: ArsTechnica “The pandemic is bringing us closer to our robot takeout future

TELEPRESENCE

To attend virtual graduations:

To conduct live virtual tours of museums

To conduct telehealth visits

A quadrupedal telepresence robot with a tablet for a head, with screen showing a person's face during a virtual telehealth visit.
Source: NPR, “Meet ‘Spot’: The Robot That Could Help Doctors Remotely Treat COVID-19 Patients

ENFORCE SOCIAL DISTANCING

If a drone wasn’t scary enough, how about a creepy headless robot dog shouting at you to go home?

A quadrupedal robot attached with a speaker in a Singapore park; masked people siting on a park bench nearby, listening.
Source: Gizmodo “Pandemic Robots Deployed in Singapore Parks to Remind Humans of Their Own Mortality

SOCIAL ROBOTS

On the much friendlier side of socializing, robots are being used to staff hospitals to entertain, improve morale, and provide information to those recovering.

Photos showing staff robots at a hospital in China.
Source: CNBC “What America can learn from China’s use of robots and telemedicine to combat the coronavirus”

To connect to loved ones in nursing homes:


DISINFECTING

To emit powerful ultraviolet light in hospital rooms:

Robot in hospital emitting ultraviolet light to disinfect the room..
Source: CNBC “What America can learn from China’s use of robots and telemedicine to combat the coronavirus

To spray quarantined and infected areas outside:

Photos of robots capable of spraying outside areas to disinfect them.

CONTINUITY OF WORK

To power people’s mass buying of supplies:

To help workers perform remote operation requiring dexterous manipulation:


ONWARD, ROBOTS!