Nerd Guru

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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Running Diary: The vendor trade show - Part 2

This is part 2 of a 3 part series on a recent trade show visit. Other parts can be found here:



Tuesday - Proceedings open and scaring some Disney IT guys


The big morning session featured the vendor's Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Executive Officer in the official opening of the proceedings. Whatever problem you have, they assured the entire audience that they can solve it. Not that I blame them for some chest thumping at their own conference, but it was basically a 90 minute commercial for their greatness. I already knew they had good products, though, or else I wouldn't be here to begin with.

Their set was pretty cool, though. It was a raised stage about 5 feet above ground level with 25 foot rear projection screens to either side of the center area for showing slides and full motion video to complement the speaker's spiel. Rock music that made me think the 1996 Chicago Bulls were going to come out and dramatic lighting that rivaled Who Wants to be a Millionare? added a nice touch too. What a neat job, to design and install these kinds of things.

Disneyworld

For today and Wednesday, the bulk of the breakout sessions feature various customers presenting how they are using the vendor's offerings. The first time slot features the one I circled first when I saw the conference agenda: Disneyworld's IT department. I was the first person in the room and was probably the only person attending the session that recognized their ambient background music they played while people filed in as being the soundtrack from Soarin'. That alone should have scared them.

I managed not to chase them off too badly before they started in on their presentation. Their basic problem was that Disneyworld is the largest single site employer in the US and the organization of their data was all over the place. Through the use of the vendor's products, they cleaned up their structures, interfaces, and data entry processes so that now they can react very quickly to changes. The best example they gave was that if, on a crowded day, the Magic Kingdom reaches it's capacity, it takes them less than 10 minutes to ripple that fact through to the turnstile operators letting people in, the monorail and ferry boat captains shuttling people from the parking lot to the park, and even the people manning the parking lot booths. That seems like a simple thing, but that's a lot of people at a lot of different physical locations receiving data in response to an asynchronous event that effects a heck of a lot of people.

Interesting problem, to say the least, and very different from the kinds of things I deal with. Further, they also approached selling their initial plan to their upper management as only an entertainment company can. They shot a video that showed interview excerpts featuring people who were experiencing data inaccuracy problems, including how it ultimately effected Disneyworld guests. Using this technique to get their funding as a "before" picture, they shot a series of "after" interviews as well in an attempt to get even more funding as they roll out the same plan to other Disney resorts around the world. Not everybody has an entertainment conglomerate at their disposal, but it it hammered home the point that not only is it important to have a good technology plan in place for a major effort, you have to have a marketing plan aimed at your own internal people too. Selling your ideas to those who control the money is essential and they did it in a very special way.

Mormons

The next group I saw was the IT department for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You're probably thinking what I did when I saw them on the schedule, "I didn't know the Mormon church had an IT department." Not only do they, they have an interesting problem of languages to deal with. New member recruitment is a major part of the church, having missionaries in just about every country in the world. Because of this, they support 230 languages with their material. Read that again and think about the logistics surrounding that.

I asked the presenter about this in more detail after the session was over and they have an interesting solution to it. The IT department is not only responsible for the official web site of the church, but also is a major component in the publishing process which includes everything from Bibles to pamphlets. Every quarter, they do a language review and decide, based on membership statistics in various countries, what "level" to associate a particular language with. Everything is available for Level 1 languages, including the 23 they support on their website. There are 5 levels of languages and depending upon what level a language is placed in, it may get no web site support, but get Bibles or neither of those, but certain recruitment materials.

Regional health care

The third interesting talk I saw was by a group from a regional health care provider in the Boston area. Unknown to me, the vendor had a ton of regional health care providers (including the one that I use in Southern Washington) that use some image management software. Apparently, there is a huge push to get medical records off of paper and into digital-only. The amount of data that is backlogged in where houses is staggering and the getting rid of rental on those facilities alone is cost motivation enough to do the switch. Even better, in a perfect digital medical record world, an Emergency Room doctor anywhere can instantly see your most recent tests and/or prescriptions, increasing the quality of care.

But first, there are those nasty paper documents to deal with. This particular provider in Massachusetts told us all about the millions upon millions of pieces of paper they had that went back as far as 40 years. Each of these documents is governed by privacy laws and has to be handled in a particular way. The idea was to scan the really important ones and make them available to doctors through the in-room PC network and accompanying diagnosis recording software. Very quickly, though, they figured out that scanning all 90 document types and all 15 million or so documents simply wasn't feasible.

With a team of doctors from every department, they whittled that number of document types down to 30 and decided to go back only 5 years on each. A process was set up to move the documents from the various storage facilities, to the scanning facility, and back, keeping in check with the federal medical record handling laws. Once at the scanning facility, each image was taggged with enough information so that it was not only associated with the right patient, but would show up in the right place in the new patient record software.

Lots of other providers, they explained, had just associated the scans with individual patients and made them available in a big wad somewhere in the medical record screen of what the doctors would later use. What they found is that the docs hated having to search all the scans manually to distinguish between a prescription and an x-ray. This Boston group wanted to learn from that and have the scans show up in the appropriate place. This took longer, but they were willing to take on that extra expense to get greater usability.

With all that in place, they scanned 150,000 documents per month for a year in order to get everything they wanted. "Wow," is what I thought when I heard that number. Lots of interesting problems with this one: picky user base and a ton (literally) of data to sift through at the top of that list that also includes legal issues. That's one job I'm glad I don't have.

The Entertainment

The day ended with a cocktail hour and the imitation Cirque show, which happened to be sponsored by the company I work for. Imagine a bunch of tipsy IT guys and vendor company executives getting together to see a contortionist and you pretty much get the picture. The juggler was good and the "balancing guy" was awesome, but everybody kept talking about the girl who could sit on her own head. That is, until the muscle guys came out to do a balancing act similar to this:





People in shows like this have insane muscle control. That whole "one guy does a one armed handstand on the head of the other guy, who then stands up" thing was definitely a highlight. It was very impressive end to a full day.

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