Practicality and impact


Meet Kenney Ng, research staff member in the Center for Computational Health and manager of the Health Analytics Research Group at IBM Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. IBM Health Corps is working with CARE India to build a proof of concept platform that integrates disparate data sets and provides actionable visualizations in order to assist public health decision makers more efficiently manage the essential drug supply chain. Kenney is bringing his data science expertise to the project, looking at what questions can be answered by the data.

Tell us your impressions of the project so far.

This is very different from work that I’m used to. The work I do day-to-day is usually several steps removed from practical reality. Whereas here, we’re at the last mile, where the rubber meets the road. It’s good to get this exposure and clarity. It’s made me realize there are a lot of problems in the real world that can be solved without having to come up with overly complex methods or approaches. We try to be practical in research but really you have to come up with new methods and a lot of these methods are somewhat contrived and a bit removed from reality. So it’s good to have that reminder that there are lot of things we can do that are more straightforward and have a lot more impact.

What are you taking away from this experience?

It’s amazing how much the team has been able to do in such a short amount of time – in only two weeks so far.  The amount of information gathered and digested, and then we’ve analyzed and built upon that, and now we’re working on the process of restating and adding value. The amount of stuff that’s done with a seven-person team plus the CARE India folks has been amazing.

I think a big part of it is the focus. A lot of time was spent organizing ahead of time, so we don’t have to wait. The silly blockers were removed.

I’m thinking about how to apply this as a general practice for me and my team. I have a policy where people work on no more than two projects. But I need a better assessment of how many distractions are actually happening and then working with the team to reduce them. Focus is the key and how do we realistically make that sustainable.

This is your first time in India. What’s stood out to you so far?

The sensory overload in terms of the number of people, the noise, the variety of transportation you see on the roads (cars, motorcycles, cycle rickshaws, bicycles, pedestrians, horses, even cows). Everyone seems to be doing their own thing. Like with the traffic… even though there are lights and cross walks, and a police directing traffic, people disregard this. It was an interesting preview into the health system here. Even with a structure, mandates and directives from on high, things happen bottom up, more organically. There’s inconsistent adherence to those mandates. That’s interesting for us to consider how culture plays a role in our project.

I’ve enjoyed getting out and seeing things. Our trip to Nalanda was really interesting – to see how extensive the facilities and grounds were for a free university that long ago was very impressive. We see examples of ancient civilizations that seem to be so far ahead, in terms of their approach and thought, as compared to where we are now. It’s interesting to see how certain areas of human knowledge have advanced a lot in a short time, but there are other areas that have hardly changed at all.

Exploring Nalanda, founded in the 5th century AD, an ancient seat of learning in India

So, all in all… how do you feel about our project?
There are three things that motivate me:
1) Working on and contributing to a challenging problem
2) Working with smart, motivated people
3) Learning something new
This project is satisfying all three. It has been a great experience and I am grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the team.


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