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How software can be used to improve the home care industry

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CareLineLive’s Dec Norton discusses how management software tools can be used to improve the lives of home care workers and their patients.

Beyond the world of 3D printing and cutting-edge medical research, the frontline of healthcare can also be improved with automation and software systems.

Dec Norton is director of development at CareLineLive, a UK-based tech company that provides cloud-based home care management software.

Norton’s role is to ensure the company’s product is addressing the needs of its customers while also pushing innovation.

“Home care agencies and their carers require tools that empower them to do their jobs more efficiently and make the day-to-day tasks easier. Ultimately, our goal is to allow carers more time to look after their vulnerable clients,” he told Siliconrepublic.com

“CareLineLive was in part born from an acknowledgement that for agencies and carers alike, rostering was a big part of their roles. A process that was traditionally paper based was inflexible and didn’t allow for last-minute changes.

“We created a platform that places rostering at the centre of our solution, offering care workers and admin staff access to an online rostering tool that would alert carers to any last-minute changes and one that did not require them to make constant journeys back-and-forth to the office.”

‘The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the update and appetite for technology’
– DEC NORTON

Are you spearheading any major product or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

In the summer we announced new features that provide vital insights on client wellbeing, as well as helping carers be more proactive with their interventions. We have also been actively extending and improving our suite of care planning tools, to help carers across all aspects of their role.

These new capabilities allow carers to easily record observations on their clients’ physical and mental welfare (for example, meals, fluid intake, blood pressure and glucose readings), meaning that carers can monitor their clients’ health effectively.

On top of this, carers can take images to log potential issues, as well as providing agencies with the ability to follow the correct procedures and to record any incidents, giving other stakeholders comprehensive information about any concerns reported.

Agencies and carers also have access to improved data insights from observations taken with the CareLineLive Carer Companion App. This will allow agencies to understand trends and foresee potential problems before they arise. Not only will this provide better person-centred care for clients, but it also will help to ease the burden on the NHS, with fewer older and vulnerable people needing to be hospitalised in emergency circumstances.

On top of this, offering document management to carers and administrators provides an automated process that saves time and allows exceptional care to continue. Automating rostering, payroll and medication records means that carers do not have to waste time with in-person contact updates and allows them to understand their workload and whether or not they have capacity to help with other clients.

Offering e-signatures and ensuring carers are reimbursed correctly all via one system is equally important and allows carers to concentrate fully on the job in hand.

How big is your team?

We’ve recently hired our 20th employee – after starting with a team of three at CareLineLive’s inception at the end of 2017. Our tech team is relatively small compared to some of the other players in the space, but I feel that keeping a small tight-knit team allows us to remain nimble when addressing the needs of our customers.

Outsourcing isn’t something we regularly entertain. It’s important to us that everyone that contributes to the platform has a good understanding of the context in which they’re building and has an opportunity to build relationships within the team.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation?

Although it’s been a difficult time in so many ways, I think the digital transformation we have seen in the past two years has been fantastic. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the update and appetite for technology, particularly when it comes to care management software, and I think we are at the beginning of a really positive journey.

The home care industry will gain more and more insight that will ultimately help clients, but also have positive effects on helping the NHS deal with pressures brought on by the pandemic and other seasonal illness.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

There are two big tech trends that stand out to me. The first is artificial intelligence and machine learning in enabling the interrogation of data. Before companies decided to automate and digitise this wasn’t available but with the volume of data now available, ensuring that it is both trustworthy and accurate is incredibly important. Being able to interrogate data makes processes more efficient.

Another tech trend that I believe has been transformative in recent years is the pervasiveness of wearable/IoT technologies. These have helped to address and recognise potential concerns in multiple areas. The data collected can offer health and care professionals useful and insightful information about patients, ultimately allowing those that care to offer the best care possible and ensuring that any subtle changes in a patient’s health are recognised and recorded.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

CareLineLive takes the security and privacy of its customers’ data very seriously. We are ISO 27001 and NHS DSP toolkit compliant, Cyber Essentials certified, and Homecare Association registered. People are at the heart of home care and for this reason we take the privacy of our users very seriously.

The CareLineLive system includes enhanced features, such as biometric authentication and device encryption to ensure that the Carer Companion Mobile app is as secure as possible. Equally, mobile device-managed smartphone handsets make sure that the devices can be remotely wiped and the app can be locked remotely if a handset is lost or stolen.

On top of this, the location of carers is monitored only for the instance when they’re either arriving or departing a care visit. The data of CareLineLive’s customers is GDPR compliant and all data is encrypted in transit and at rest, protecting against interception and unauthorised access. Penetration tests are run regularly to ensure that server hardware is secure and a full audit history is kept for actions performed in the software.

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A day in the life of a metaverse specialist

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Unity’s Antonia Forster discusses her work using AR, VR and everything in between, and why ignoring imposter syndrome is particularly important in the world of emerging technology.

We’ve started hearing a lot about the metaverse and what it means for the future, including how it might affect recruitment and the working world.

But what is it like to actually work within this space? Antonia Forster is an extended reality (XR) technical specialist at video game software development company Unity Technologies, with several years of experience developing XR applications.

Future Human

In her role at Unity, she works across a variety of industries, from automotive to architecture, creating demos and delivering talks using XR, which encapsulates AR, VR and everything in between.

‘I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect’
– ANTONIA FORSTER

If there is such a thing, can you describe a typical day in the job?

It’s challenging to describe a typical day because they vary so much!  I work completely remotely with flexible hours. Most of my team are based in the US while I’m in the UK. In order to manage the time difference, I usually start work around 11am and work until 7pm.

Most of my day is spent on developing content, whether that’s using Unity and C# to code a technical demo, creating video content to help onboard new starters with Unity’s tools, or writing a script for a webinar.

Before the pandemic, a role like mine would involve lots of travel and speaking at conferences. But unfortunately, that’s a little more challenging now.

We use a whole range of tools from organisational ones like Asana to manage our projects, to Slack and Google Docs to coordinate with each other, to Unity’s own technical tools to create content.

All of Unity’s XR tools fall under my remit, so I might be creating VR content one day and creating an AR mobile app the next. I also use Unity and C# to create my own projects outside of work. For example, I co-created the world’s first LGBTQ+ virtual reality museum, which has been officially selected for Tribeca Film Festival in June 2022 – during Pride!

What types of project do you work on?

At Unity, my role is to create content that helps people understand our tools and get excited about all the different things it enables them to do. For example, for one project I visited a real construction site and used one of Unity’s tools (VisualLive) to see the virtual model of the building model overlaid on top of the real physical construction.

This makes it very easy to see the difference between the plan and the actual reality, which is very important to avoid clashes and costly mistakes. For another project, I used VR and hand-tracking to demonstrate how someone could showcase a product (say, a car) inside a VR showroom and then interact with it using hand tracking and full-body tracking.

What skills do you use on a daily basis?

The most relevant skill for my role is the ability to break down a larger problem into small steps and then solving each step. That’s really all programming is! That and knowing the right terms to Google to find the solution and enough understanding to implement the solution, or continuing to search if you don’t understand that solution or it is not appropriate for your problem.

Despite my title, I don’t think of myself as highly ‘technical’. I’m an entirely self-taught software developer, and I’m a visual learner, so I watch a lot more YouTube tutorials than you might expect!

Another crucial skill is persistence because VR and AR are emerging and fast-moving technologies that are constantly changing. If I follow a tutorial or try a solution and it doesn’t work, I used to grapple with the feeling that maybe I’m not good enough.

In reality, this technology changes so often that if a tutorial is six months old, it might be out of date. Learning to be resilient and persistent and to ignore my feelings of imposter syndrome was the most important thing I’ve learned on my career journey. Your feelings are not facts, and imposter syndrome is extremely common in this industry.

What are the hardest parts of your working day?

One of the most difficult challenges of my working day is the isolation. I work remotely and many of my team are on a different time zone, so we’re not always able to chat. To overcome that, I prioritise social engagements outside of work.

When I’m extremely busy with my own projects – like the LGBTQ+ VR museum – I go to co-working spaces so that I can at least be around other people during working hours.

I also struggle with time blindness. I have ADHD and working remotely means that it’s easy to get absorbed in a task and forget to take breaks. I set alarms to snap myself out of my ‘trance’ at certain times, like lunchtime. I have to admit though, it doesn’t always work!

Do you have any productivity tips that help you through the day?

My main tip for productivity is to find what works for you, not what works for other people, or what others think should work for you.

For example, I am a night owl. So, starting my day a little later and working into the night, works well for me. It also means I can sync with my team in the US. I don’t find time to play video games, piano or meet up with my friends in the evening, so instead I arrange those things for the morning, which helps me persuade myself to get out of bed!

In the same way, when I was learning to code, people gave me advice like: ‘Break things and fix it, to see how it works’. But that produced a lot of anxiety for me and didn’t work well.

Instead, I learned with my own methods like writing songs, drawing cartoons and even physically printing and gluing code snippets into a notebook and writing the English translation underneath. Code after all, is a language, so I treated it the same way. Find what works for you, even if it’s not conventional!

How has this role changed as this sector has grown and evolved?

I began this role in 2020 and typically – before the pandemic – my job would have been described as a ‘technical evangelism’, which involves a lot of public speaking and travel to conferences.

Of course, that wasn’t really possible, so my role has evolved into creating content of different types – webinars online, videos, onboarding tutorials and technical demos for marketing and sales enablement.

While I really enjoy public speaking, the lack of travel has given me time to get deeply familiar with Unity’s XR tooling and sharpen my technical expertise. This technology is always changing so it’s really important to constantly learn and grow. Luckily, I have an insatiable curiosity and appetite for knowledge. I think all engineers do!

What do you enjoy most about the job?

I have two favourite things about this job. First, the autonomy. Since I have a deep understanding of the tools and our users/audience, I’m trusted to design and propose my own solutions that best meet the user needs.

Secondly, the technology itself. Being able to create VR or AR content is like sorcery! I can conjure anything from nothing. I can create entire worlds that I can step into based only on my imagination. And so can anybody that learns this skill – and it’s easier than you think! That has never stopped being magical and exciting to me, and I don’t think it ever will.

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Will this fruit-picking robot transform agriculture? | Artificial intelligence (AI)

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Robots can do a lot. They build cars in factories. They sort goods in Amazon warehouses. Robotic dogs can, allegedly and a little creepily, make us safer by patrolling our streets. But there are some things robots still cannot do – things that sound quite basic in comparison. Like picking an apple from a tree.

“It’s a simple thing” for humans, says robotics researcher Joe Davidson. “You and I, we could close our eyes, reach into the tree. We could feel around, touch it, and say ‘hey, that’s an apple and the stem’s up here’. Pull, twist. We could do all that without even looking.”

Creating a robotic implement that can simply pick an apple and drop it into a bin without damaging it is a multimillion-dollar effort that has been decades in the making. Teams around the world have tried various approaches. Some have developed vacuum systems to suck fruit off trees. Davidson and his colleagues turned to the human hand for inspiration. They began their efforts by observing professional fruit pickers, and are now working to replicate their skilled movements with robotic fingers.

Their work could help to transform agriculture, turning fruit-picking – a backbreaking, time-consuming human task – into one that’s speedy and easier on farm workers.

These efforts have gained impetus recently as researchers point to the worsening conditions for farm workers amid the climate crisis, including extreme heat and wildfire smoke, and also a shortage of workers in the wake of the pandemic. The technology could lead to better working conditions and worker safety. But that outcome depends on how robots are deployed in fields, farm workers’ organizations say.

While robotic tools for agriculture have made big strides in recent years, those AI-based tools are mostly used for weeding, monitoring soil moisture and other field conditions, or for planting soybeans using remote-controlled tractors. “But when it actually comes to doing physical work like pruning trees or picking fruit, that’s still the realm of people today,” Davidson says.

Teaching robots to perform these tasks requires modernized versions of both the orchard and the apple.

Traditional orchards, with irregularly shaped trees and giant canopies, are too much of a challenge for algorithms to parse and process. Shifting sunbeams, fog and clouds add to computer vision’s challenges. Tangled, tall old trees are problematic even to human pickers, who end up spending much of their time hauling and positioning ladders, not picking fruit.

Now, many growers have transitioned to orchards where trees grow flat against trellises, their trunks and branches at right angles to create a “wall of fruit”, says Scott Jacky, owner of Red Roof Consulting, a group that helps optimize farm technologies. The thinner canopy also lets more sunlight in, encouraging fruits to form.

Since the 1990s, breeders have been working to develop apple varieties more resistant to sunburn – a side-effect of those sparser canopies – and less prone to bruising when dropped into bins. All these changes to the trees and the apples themselves make the job easier for robots (and for humans).

In orchards with trellised trees, human fruit pickers can cruise through rows of trees in pairs on slowly rolling platforms. One person crouches to reach low-hanging fruit, the other reaches for the higher branches. Professionals working this way take about two seconds to pick one apple.

The robot in Davidson’s lab, which is essentially a giant arm mounted on a rolling platform, takes about five seconds to make its moves. At the click of a key, the robotic arm reaches up for the fruit – actually a plastic apple made for testing purposes – with its three-fingered palm. Its fingers are covered in cushiony silicone “skin”, which conceals individual motors wired to tendons that drive its fingers. Thirty sensors under each fingertip track the pressure, speed, angle and other aspects of its grasp to help the robot complete its task.

Another keystroke and the fingers tighten, then twist, and the apple – successfully picked – rests in the robot’s palm.

The fruit-picking robot has picked an apple successfully about half of the 500 or so times it has tried so far. Still, the robotic arm has cracked some problems that posed hurdles to automation. For instance, it can avoid damaging both fruit and tree limbs in the harvesting process. Rapid improvements in computing make Davidson and others hopeful the robots will work on farms within the next five to 10 years.

The US government is placing significant bets on this technology. Last year alone, federal funding agencies granted $20m to support the AgAID institute, a new group that supports several researchers, including Davidson, in efforts to develop artificial intelligence-backed tools for agriculture.

Proponents of harvest automation say there will still be jobs for people, such as training and operating the robots. “There are going to be plenty of tasks where the robotic instruments and digital devices will necessarily have to work with humans,” said Ananth Kalyanaraman, professor at Washington State University and director of the AgAID institute. “That’s going to actually empower humans because it gives them new skillsets.”

For now, it’s unclear to many farm workers how the robots will affect their livelihood. “If they’re used properly, they can actually be a support system for workers and improve standards at work,” says Reyna Lopez, executive director of PCUN, a Latinx farm workers’ organization in Oregon.

But so far, Lopez and others say they have not been involved in conversations about the fruit-picking robots. “Historically, farm workers have not been placed at the center of any of these conversations,” they say. Across various industries, including agriculture, waves of automation have led to job losses and a devaluing of human work. Often in the wake of such shifts, “what happens to low-wage workers is that people lose their jobs,” Lopez says.

The emergence of robotic farm workers could even be an opportunity for humans to engage in different – and far less strenuous – work than pruning or harvesting, says Ines Hanrahan, executive director of the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission. “There’s a lot of folks in rural communities who, even if they would like to, physically cannot do these jobs,” she says.

“When you take the physical aspect out, these tasks become more accessible to older workers or those less physically capable of lugging ladders and things. It enables more people to be drawn into this work.”

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Secret files on US govt’s emergency doomsday powers released • The Register

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More papers describing the orders and messages the US President can issue in the event of apocalyptic crises, such as a devastating nuclear attack, have been declassified and released for all to see.

These government files are part of a larger collection of records that discuss the nature, reach, and use of secret Presidential Emergency Action Documents: these are executive orders, announcements, and statements to Congress that are all ready to sign and send out as soon as a doomsday scenario occurs. PEADs are supposed to give America’s commander-in-chief immediate extraordinary powers to overcome extraordinary events.

PEADs have never been declassified or revealed before. They remain hush-hush, and their exact details are not publicly known.

That said, files revealing internal government discussions and policies on the development and use of PEADs have been, over the past few years, collected and released by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonprofit focused on legal policy, through freedom of information requests. These files cover PEADs drafted under various administrations from President Dwight Eisenhower during the Cold War to Donald Trump during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The survival of the Presidency could be in doubt

“Through these documents, we know that there were 56 PEADs in effect as of 2017, up from 48 a couple of decades earlier,” the center’s landing page for its collection reads.

For example, it appears some of these emergency actions included an authorization to censor news reports, detain anyone designated a foreign enemy, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and allow the search and seizure of persons and property.

Take for instance this report [PDF] from 1962 by the Emergency Planning Committee during John F. Kennedy’s presidency that tackled the issue of a nuclear strike on the capital potentially wiping out not just the President but anyone who could replace them, requiring plans for avoiding that and decentralizing government functions if needed.

“The survival of the Presidency could be in doubt during a critical decision-making period if the elected President were lost, since all eligible successors usually live and work in the Washington DC area and could be casualties of the same attack,” the file, shared by the Brennan center, stated.

The file also describes rationing to prevent the hoarding of essential things like food and water, and efforts maintain public morale and basic liberties after an attack.

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Another document [PDF] from 1959 describing the aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack estimated 48 million people would die, leaving 12 million survivors making up the US population. Nuclear apocalypse remained the top risk for the US government over the Cold War. The fear of terrorism took over post-9/11. The White House said [PDF] the Department of Defense, for example, will provide fingerprints of all known or suspected terrorists to the FBI in 2004.

When the COVID-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) proposed [PDF] a bill to try and force the President to submit any PEADs that had come into effect for legal scrutiny. Those documents would have to be declassified within 180 days with a redacted version to be publicly released.

“The Bren­nan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program researches PEADs and advocates for greater transparency and oversight of them,” the think tank said.

The center has had a modest archive of these files on its site since mid-2020. Now the center has obtained about 500 pages from the George W. Bush Presidential Library – some 6,000 couldn’t be released as they remain classified.

These documents shed light on the Bush administration mulling whether it had the authority to flip a communications “kill switch” in an emergency that would cut off internet connectivity as well as telephone lines. Officials also wrestled over the issue of the emergency suspension of habeas corpus in light of a court ruling that Guantanamo Bay prisoners had the right to challenge their detention before a judge.

Locking down the use of US passports to prevent travel was also on the table in the GWB era, and more. A lot of it is dry, though if you like looking through declassified information, you’ll probably find some weekend reading here. The main thing to remember is that there is next to no oversight of these emergency powers.

“With Congress unable to serve its constitutional role as a check on the executive branch, there remains the possibility that modern PEADs, like their historical predecessors, sacrifice Americans’ constitutional rights and the rule of law in the name of emergency planning,” the Bren­nan center’s Benjamin Waldman noted.

“Congress should pass Sen. Ed Markey’s REIGN Act, which has been incorporated into the Protecting Our Democracy Act and the National Security Reforms and Accountability Act, to bring these shadowy powers to account.” ®

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