Imagine you’re back at school, and one day the teacher has something for show and tell. Someone, actually. A real live scientist, or mathematician, or ICT specialist. And not just the once.
It’s been happening regularly in Australian schools since 2007. All levels of schools, from kindy to Year 12. In the only program in the world of its size and scope, Scientists and Mathematicians in Schools (SMiS) puts practicing STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) professionals into school classrooms. We also do the same thing with ICT professionals.
The program was a response to the decline in the numbers of students electing to study STEM subjects. It seemed that a promising strategy for arresting this would be to find a way for students to see the relevance of their science courses, and see that people working in science aren’t the caricature nerds represented in the media. But how to get them into the classroom? One way was to combine two kinds of outreach, and get involved with teachers’ professional development.
So we started a program to mentor teachers – and by doing so, provide students with a positive image of people working in the STEM sector. Seven years later, there have been more than 4000 partnerships between teachers and STEM professionals in schools. At the moment there are more than 1600 active partnerships.
It’s not just CSIRO scientists who are involved. Scientists in Schools volunteers can be research scientists and engineers, science and engineering postgrads, and applied science professionals like doctors, vets, and park rangers. Mathematicians in Schools wants to hear from anyone who did a degree with a maths focus and works in a job that uses maths: economists, accountants, surveyors and mathematical scientists, among others. If you’re an ICT professional working in research; a postgraduate ICT student or you’re involved in ICT in industry, like programmers, ICT security specialists, and systems analysts, you’re suitable for ICT in Schools.
When teachers ask for a mentor to be paired with them, we select appropriate matches very carefully. We’re a bit like the Blood Bank: we have to find suitable partners for the procedure to be a success. And we don’t think any of our volunteers are the equivalent of Type O.
Teachers might be looking for someone with expertise in a particular topic. We also have to consider time constraints – some volunteers might only be available at particular times, and there are logistical considerations such as transport availability to take into account as well.
But this doesn’t mean that areas that aren’t readily accessible miss out. We can arrange long-distance partnerships too – Skype, email and block visits are our friends here. Some of the partnerships can be surprising – at present we have a scientist from the Australian Antarctic Division paired with a teacher in Townsville, based on common expertise and interests. And we cherish the pictures from a previous partnership between a teacher in a Northern Territory school and another Australian Antarctic Division scientist. When she visited the school, she took her polar suit with her, and the photos of her all rugged up in the NT heat just to show the kids are incongruous and charming.
It’s not all feel-good and cute pictures though. It provides a valuable resource for teachers, and gives them far greater confidence in their teaching. It enables the volunteer scientists to brush up on their communication skills – something which is ever more important in science careers. As one of our volunteer scientists from Tasmania says, ‘There is no room for jargon and big words when you talk to kids. I think it helps me understand better what I’m saying when I have to explain it in words an 8-year old can follow’. And our volunteers also say it re-enthuses them about their science – the kids’ enthusiasm reignites their own.
The students also get to practice some real science, and learn about experimental design, as this story shows. And yes, that’s a professor from the University of NSW mentoring a Year 7 teacher. An ACT school gets a Nobel Prize-winning physicist. CSIRO CEO Megan Clark was also a volunteer.
We see this combination of results as a win-win-win. And the three evaluations the program has had so far agreed with us. More importantly, so did parents, teachers and students. A parent from NSW says, ‘It’s fantastic that individuals are willing to offer their time to help facilitate the learning of our children. Please pass on a big thank you for being an inspiration for my son’.
While a teacher from SA tells us that ‘Our mathematician really is terrific in the way he volunteers his time to work with the kids. They love his knowledge, teaching skills and mathematical challenges’.
But this one … This comment, from a student in the NT, brings it all home: ‘The opportunity that we had to work with you was one of the greatest ones in my life. You made science fun for us and getting us involved in the science was a great experience’.
We think this is a pretty special program.
How many times have you been looking for information online, only to find yourself going round and round in circles? Or you’ve spent too long poking around a website trying to find what you need, only to realise you’ve been looking in the wrong place all along?
Whether it is doing your banking, looking up details of a flight or checking out some government services – if a website doesn’t work the way we want it to, it can be very frustrating experience.
It might seem like a first-world problem but the reality is our expectations around service delivery are changing. More than three quarters of Australians prefer to access services electronically and we expect those services to be faster, adaptable and available whenever and wherever we desire.
This is why, more than ever before, service providers need to understand how people use their digital channels and make sure that their design is efficient, user-friendly and fit for the purpose.
Creating digital communities
It’s not only businesses that need to have a savvy online presence. Digital service delivery is increasingly relevant for the public sector. The Australian Public Service ICT strategy 2012 – 2015, states that digital technologies will be used to enable the delivery of better government services for the Australian people, communities and business.
Take the Australian Government’s Department of Human Services, which interacts with millions of Australians through services such as Medicare and Centrelink.
When managing payments worth more than a third of the federal government’s overall budget, small improvements to individual transactions can have a huge benefit. Customers being able to use self-service and online tools for some of their needs frees up valuable resources for cases where human interaction can make the most difference.
For the past five years CSIRO worked with the Department – under the Human Services Delivery Research Alliance which concluded in September – to develop a number of tools that are helping to transform service delivery for the digital era.
Connecting on social media
The Department is using our social media monitoring system, called Vizie, to support their social media management.
Vizie tracks, integrates and visualises information from a range of social media channels including Twitter, Facebook and Youtube, into a single, theme-based dashboard.
Vizie can then help the department identify, from social media and in real time, when customers are experiencing problems using online and mobile services. This knowledge provides valuable feedback and supports quicker system responses.
As well as providing immediate insight into the major topics of the day, Vizie can also save organisations a lot of time that would otherwise be spent sifting through huge volumes of social media chatter.
More intuitive website experiences
The department is also using LATTE, a software platform that analyses the patterns in how people interact with websites.
It compares the sequence and duration of page visits to patterns that denote happy customers or user frustration through an inability to find the information they are looking for.
These patterns detect not only when, but where and why people encounter trouble with finding information, as well as the context of the session. It reveals insights into the organisation of pages and links, and the impact of word choice in search terms.
For example, LATTE might identify a pattern where users load four or five pages in succession before “abandoning ship” and jumping to a Google search instead. This indicates that they were not able to find what they were looking for within the website itself, either because it is hidden away or simply doesn’t exist.
The software can also identify problems with language usage, which can play a huge part in a website’s usability. This can often be the case when an organisation’s internal terminology or jargon doesn’t match up with everyday usage.
Internal search engines can also be a source of frustration if they don’t work effectively. LATTE can be used to identify patterns of user behaviour that show where searches are failing.
For example, users might conduct several searches, one after the other, still unable to find what they need. Or it might show that users have followed a link to a search result, only to then go round and round in circles.
LATTE identifies these mismatches between a user’s expectations of a website and the website itself – whether it be language, structure, the location of content or expected search terms.
By arming organisations with this information, they can make adjustments to the content, metadata and layout of their sites, in order to create a more user friendly and satisfying experience.
Protecting privacy and boosting productivity
While all this is happening behind the scenes, a user’s privacy is being protected. The software distills this data from standard log files captured on any web server, meaning there is no intrusive monitoring.
It’s the volume of data, not the identity of the user that’s important. LATTE reports data from aggregates of hundreds or thousands of visitors and identifies trends and patterns in behaviour that can inform decision making.
As the public sector seeks further efficiency dividends and people expect more from their digital services, government agencies are becoming more agile and responsive to change than ever before.
UK research shows that an online transaction costs a mere 1/100th of a face-to-face one so there’s clear savings to be made by agencies improving the online experience.
Perhaps one of the greatest impacts of the digital economy is that today almost anything can be measured – in fact we are drowning in data. So the old management adage “what gets measured gets managed” is turning inside out, to become “how do you measure to manage better?”
The challenge is identifying what data will be useful, and how it can be presented and managed itself to help improve a service to better meet customers’ needs without compromising their rights to privacy and informational security, and without overwhelming decision-makers.
Emerging technologies, such as LATTE and Vizie, are providing this evidence. The potential for these tools to be adopted by other organisations – both public and private – are almost limitless and we believe they are key to enabling services to be delivered faster and better in the digital age.
This will not only improve our productivity as a nation, but hopefully it will also eliminate those frustrating online experiences that leave you pounding the keyboard.
Michael Kearney works for CSIRO. CSIRO received funding from the Australian Government Department of Human Services under the Human Services Delivery Research Alliance. The software tools mentioned in this article were developed with support from the Alliance.
CSIRO received funding from the Department of Human Services under the Human Services Delivery Research Alliance. The Digital Economy Program receives funding from a range of government and industry partners. Sarah is also affiliated with the Australian Communication Consumer Action Network.
By Mikayla Keen and Claire Harris
Have you ever stopped to think about what’s under your feet, under our roads and under the wheat crops that produced the flour in your bread?
Soil features in every continent on the globe; it’s one of the fundamental building blocks of life. It’s pretty important stuff but we don’t often think about it.
But now, we’ve led a team of world experts digging deep, uncovering the secrets of soil and they’ve created the most comprehensive nation-wide digital map of Australia’s soils and landscapes. We worked with TERN (the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network), the University of Sydney and a number of state and federal government agencies.
And now, we present to you the Soil and Landscape Grid of Australia.
Using 3-dimensional spatial modelling, and combining rich historical data with new digital information gathered through technology like satellites and sensors in the laboratory, Australia’s best soil and landscape scientists have created new information and a very powerful tool.
The Grid itself is a marvel, representing the whole country as approximately 2 billion data pixels. That means each pixel is the snapshot of an area roughly the size of a football field (90 x 90 metres). Every one of them contains information about the properties of the soil like pH, organic carbon and water capacity, down to a depth of 2 metres, and estimates of uncertainty (we couldn’t go out and sample the entire continent!). The Grid also contains details about the landscape, such as solar radiation and slope.
Not excited about the wonders of dirt? Then what about the science? The Grid uses exciting new infrared spectral methods to derive soil information rapidly and cheaply. It uses advanced spatial modelling that combines earth observation and satellite data to characterise and map the soil across the country. And the technology? The Grid uses powerful computing clusters for computation for the modelling and to produce the maps. It uses smart computing to access the databases from state and territory departments, the University of Sydney and Geoscience Australia. During early user testing one person said, ‘Wow! I can get data in six minutes now instead of six months’. Before the Grid came along he would have had to gather the information from each of the different data systems. It wasn’t quite going door to door, but you get the picture.
Still not excited? How about some nifty data visualisation? The data can be viewed in a few different ways, for example, downloading it into Google Earth.
The best thing of all is that it’s freely available to everybody online.
For those keen beans like farmers, land managers, urban and regional planners and environmental scientists, who want to dig into the data, the files can be accessed through the Grid website in sections or the complete set is available through CSIRO’s Data Access Portal.
The data in the Grid can be sucked into a wide range of other databases and computer modelling programs and is useful to loads of different research projects. It is also part of Australia’s contribution to the GlobalSoilMap project.
For those who don’t want to get bogged down in the detail, check out our animation, which takes you on the journey of the Grid.
It’s been big collaborative effort with a large team bringing together the best minds for the job. The Grid is ready and waiting for new data, some of which will no doubt come from technology that hasn’t even been invented yet (kangaroos with laser scanners on their heads anyone? Or is that TOO weird?)
For now, though, why not marvel at the beauty of the soil and landscape through the digital eyes of the Grid.
It’s a big place, the Murray-Darling Basin. Over a million km2 – about one-seventh of the whole of Australia. There’s a lot to know about it, and we’re helping students find out more for themselves, using a novel CSIRO innovation.
The National Museum of Australia and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority have teamed up to let students learn about this vast area, taking students on an interactive, customised tour of the Museum’s Murray-Darling Basin exhibits. But the really cool part? The students never have to leave their classrooms.
Using our Telepresence robot technology, museum staff are able to broadcast real-time images, video and audio back to students in their classrooms. Students can learn about how the Basin’s water movement and volume has varied over the past 300 000 years, and the importance of water quality and its role in determining where human settlements develop and whether they survive and prosper.
This is a new departure for the robots. In the past, they’ve mainly been used to give a taste of the museum to people in remote areas who can’t easily travel there. Now they’re letting students get an understanding of the broader Murray-Darling picture.
It works this way. The museum robot (accompanied by education staff) takes the remote visitors on a virtual tour of the museum.
The robot has a high speed broadband connection, so remote visitors can interact with a human educator in the museum. The human educator leads the robot, while the remote visitors use a panoramic camera to look around and explore.
In an ultimate case of ‘look but don’t touch’ students can see and interact with information about each of the objects on display.
The best thing is that it’s a conversation, not a monologue with pictures. The museum educator can engage and challenge the students by posing multiple-choice questions, polling and viewing the student’s responses in real-time.
We’re doing a lot of work on digital immersive learning. Apart from the Telepresence robots, we’re working with science education experts to develop learning environments that mirror real-life places. These 3D models of real places will be created using our award winning laser mapping technology Zebedee and panoramic video to create the immersive environment. We’ve already taken students through Jenolan Caves from the safety of their own classrooms.
Almost makes you wish you were back at school again …
Today is World Usability Day (WUD). WUD celebrates the technologies, products and services that improve our lives by doing what they’re designed to do in a way that engages and assists us. And more importantly, it’s a day for encouraging creators, designers and manufacturers to put usability at the forefront when they’re making products.
We’re pretty proud of some of our useable technology – like our smartphone apps. We’re leveraging a technology that’s well on the way from being popular to being ubiquitous, and creating applications and services that can make a big difference to a wide range of people.
Take people who’ve had heart attacks, for instance. Nowadays, a lot more people survive heart attacks than in the past, but post-heart attack rehab remains a problem. It used to involve travelling to an outpatient clinic or similar centre, and there was a considerable dropout rate from the program. This is a problem, because patients who successfully complete cardiac rehab following a heart attack have much better health outcomes.
They are less likely to have another cardiac event, be readmitted to hospital or die from their condition. So we developed a smartphone home care delivery model – known as the Care Assessment Platform. A clinical trial found that people were almost 30 per cent more likely to take part in their rehab program at home using the app than those who had to travel to a clinic.
What’s more, people using the app were 40 per cent more likely to stick to the program and almost 70 per cent more likely to see it through to completion. That’s REAL usability.
Of course, the best treatment for heart attacks is not having one in the first place. As we all know, weight is a factor in heart disease. And certainly, keeping your weight down is a very, very good thing to do after a heart attack. We’re hoping we can help there too.
We’re currently working with Bupa Health Foundation on a trial of smartphone apps to assist with dieters’ mood and motivation. Face-to-face support is often the best way to succeed on a diet, but this is not always possible, and it can get expensive.
So you’ve survived a heart attack and done the rehab using an app. And you’ve lost weight. That means you’ve got more chance of living to be old. We’ve been working on apps to help with that, too.
Our Smarter, Safer Homes project is looking at ways to keep older people living safely in their own homes for longer. This not only takes pressure off the aged care home sector, but also improves older people’s health and wellbeing.
Our app involves placing simple sensors such as motion detectors and energy sensors placed around the home. These monitor the person as they go about their day and report the data back to family members or carers.
For example, motion sensors can detect whether a person got up at the usual time, put the kettle on, regularly cooked food for themselves, and even if they left the oven on.
The data is also reported to a tablet device owned by the elderly person, who retains full control over what data gets reported to others and what stays private.
Not all our work on apps is in human health. There’s one for soil health too. SoilMapp is designed to make soil information more accessible for Australian farmers, consultants, planners, natural resource managers, researchers and people
interested in soil. It provides direct access to the best national soil data and information from several sources.
With SoilMapp, users can find information on soil depth, acidity, salinity, soil carbon, soil water holding capacity and other attributes in a matter of minutes, anywhere there’s a wireless or internet connection.
We’ve also counted koalas using an app, and we’re looking at doing many more things with this technology.
Even the first version of the iPhone had more computing power than all of NASA had for the Apollo 11 mission, so there’s plenty of opportunity to make use of the potential of smartphones. That very usable thing in your pocket just keeps on getting more so.
Meet Yogi Kanagasingam. Yogi works at our Australian e-Health Research Centre and his vision is to change the way eye care is delivered around the world to prevent needless blindness.
A ‘serial inventor’, Yogi has developed a number of low-cost diagnostic technologies that are used to take images of our eyes. These devices are helping in the early detection of serious conditions, ranging from those that directly threaten sight, through to stroke and Alzheimer’s Disease.
By focusing on affordable, mobile solutions, he is bringing quality eye care to thousands of patients who might otherwise have gone without.
Recognising this passion and dedication, Yogi has been named as a WA finalist in the 2015 Australian of the Year Awards. Here are just some of the sight-saving (and often life-saving) projects he’s working on:
Saving sight in remote communities
However due to the remoteness of some Australian communities, it can be very difficult for people to access this type of specialist care.
That’s why we’ve been working with our partners in Western Australia (Gold Fields and Great Southern) and Queensland (Torres Strait Islands) to set up remote eye screening – giving hundreds of people access to eye testing services.
This is possible thanks to technology Yogi has developed called Remote-I.
Using Remote-I, local clinicians are able to conduct routine retinal screenings, often as part of scheduled health clinic visits. The system then sends hi-res retinal images to a city-based specialist ophthalmologist via satellite broadband – allowing them to accurately diagnose and refer patients who need immediate treatment.
A global vision for eye care
Now Yogi and his team are taking Remote-I to the world. For the past year, they’ve been working with the Zhongshan Ophthalmic Centre in China’s Guangdong Province to introduce the technology throughout a network of ten hospitals.
With a population of over 100 million people in Guangdong, local health professionals are now using the technology to screen up to 1000 patients per week. That’s a lot of eye tests.
As well as giving patients access to specialist care, this project is also providing the research team with valuable data about blood vessel patterns in retinas. This will allow them to design algorithms that could be used to automatically detect particular eye diseases, aiding diagnosis in routine screenings.
Early detection of Alzheimer’s
Using curcumin (a compound in the spice turmeric), Yogi and his team have also developed a spice-infused eye test for Alzheimer’s disease.
Patients ingest the curcumin which binds to beta-amyloid plaques (the sticky proteins that indicate Alzheimer’s) showing up in retinal scans as bright spots which can be counted and measured.
Early results show the amount of plaque in the retina closely mirrors the amount in the brain. If confirmed, this could be the beginnings of an easy, non-invasive test for early detection of Alzheimer’s – maybe up to 20 years before cognitive symptoms appear.
We’re proud as punch of Yogi. As well as the groundbreaking work he is doing with us here at CSIRO, he is also giving back to the community in his personal time. Yogi is actively involved with local Rotary Clubs, including Freshwater Bay Rotary in WA where he helps promote regular eye screening for primary school children. This can make a big difference to students, as early detection of vision abnormalities can improve both academic and sports performances.
We wish Yogi all the best this Saturday when the WA Australian of the Year will be announced at Government House. WA’s winner will then join recipients from other States and Territories as finalists for the National Awards, to be announced on Australia Day 2015.
Read more about our eHealth research on our website.
Biological illustration has come on a bit from the days of Gould’s gorgeous illustrations of birds, or Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man. Today, with the help of big data and big graphics power, we can visualise things, not just at the molecular level, but at work.
But why – apart from because it’s beautiful and fascinating – do we do it? How is it helpful? What can it show us?
Obviously, we’ve been using rudimentary data visualisation for a very long time. Charts, maps, tables, graphs. All data visualisations, but not at the level we now find ourselves working at. As Sean O’Donoghue, from our Digital Productivity and Services Flagship, puts it, ‘Data visualisation is a new visual language; we need to become fluent in it to manage the complexity of computational biology’.
Let’s think about genomic data. The more we know, the more we need new tools to deal with the knowledge we have. And we now know a lot. We’ve got the ability to generate tremendous amounts of genomic data from sequencing. Analysing that data is now the roadblock to our being able to convert what we’ve found into something useable.
Obviously, some genome analysis can be done using automated processes. But that still leaves a lot that depends on human judgement, particularly in the early stages such as hypothesis formation. Our concentration – and eyes – frankly aren’t up to spotting something different in a field of As, Cs, Gs and Ts (and nothing else), that seems to go on forever. Think of Where’s Wally?, in monochrome, with one Wally hidden on a single page hundreds of times larger than book pages. And then imagine that finding the Wally you’re looking for could make a big difference to people’s lives.
If we can combine visual and automated analysis, the pairing becomes more powerful. Users can user can seamlessly look at their data and perform computations on it, refining their analysis with each step.
Visualising also helps us reason about complex data. Sometimes, a well-chosen visualisation can make the solution to a complex problem immediately obvious. That’s because of the way that visual representations simultaneously engage the eyes and the memory. When we look at a visual, our eyes and our brain work in parallel to take in new information, and break it into small chunks. Then both the eyes and the brain process the bits in their different ways to extract meaning. It works like this.
You’ve gone to the supermarket – not your usual one – to buy bananas. When you walk in, your eyes scan the layout. At the same time, your brain is processing the various sections of the layout, and telling your eyes to home in on the fruit and veg section. It does this by sending signals from memory about how fruits look. Your eyes then break the entire scanned area into parts, then scan each part until they (all but instantly) recognise the veggie section. The same process is repeated until you spot the bananas in the fruits section. Your eyes and memory do their own things but work in parallel.
We’ve used our brains to build tools that can help us discover more and more. But making sense of what they’ve found still depends on us and our limitations. Around half of the human brain is devoted – directly or indirectly – to vision. Visualising the vast streams of data lets us work with what we’ve got to make it something more than a hunt for a tiny needle in a monstrous haystack.
If you want to see more data visualisations, there are some beautiful ones at Vizbi.