Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Beef From The Orchard

Last year I was invited to join Tesco's new product testing site The Orchard. Essential what happens is that Tesco run some form of promotion, they send me a voucher so I can try the promotion free or for less than full price and then I give them feedback, as well as publicising the promotion in some way (like this post). Given that I do almost all my food shopping at Tesco (they are the main supermarket in Penistone) it seems like a good deal to me, and hopefully you won't be too annoyed by the occasional blog post.

So the first promotion I was asked to participate in was for uncooked fresh meat from the Tesco finest* range and I was sent a £5 off voucher at the beginning of December. Unfortunately due to being away for Christmas and my local store not always stocking the full range (it's not a huge store) I've only recently used the voucher. The wait was, however, worthwhile. In the end I bought 2 fillet steaks which I served with a Greek inspired bubble and squeak. As I wasn't serving a sauce with the steaks I wanted to make sure they were really nice and succulent so I soaked them in 2 tbsp of balsamic vinegar for about 10 hours in the fridge before I cooked them. A simple but effective way of preparing the steaks especially as they turned out to be possible the best steak I've ever eaten; they really were unbelievably good. I'm sure a lot of that was down to the quality of the meat, but I'll take some of the credit for the marinading!

All in all, an excellent meal, and I'd be more than happy to recommend the Tesco finest* meats. I've already enrolled in the next promotion which is all about potatoes!

I'm Torn

If you live in the UK then in among the junk mail that your postman kindly delivers in order to ensure your waste paper bin gets fed you will probably have had a leaflet from the NHS entitled "Better information means better care". Essentially this is about the pooling of medical records in order to improve care; or at least that is what the leaflet suggests. The problem is that this sharing of data isn't about ensuring that you get better care as your medical details are already shared between your GP, hospitals, etc. to provide you with the best care. In fact, as far as I can tell, no one who would ever treat you would ever have direct access to this shared data. So if it isn't about treating you better what is it about?

The real aim of pooling the data together is for strategic planning and research. Now given that I work as a researcher I understand that in most instances the more data you have the better your results will be. While I'm not a medical researcher I have, over the last few years, been involved in a number of large projects which have involved limited access to medical records of individual patients. So in theory, I should, eventually, benefit from this programme as there will be more data available not just to medical researchers but to people like me (for those who don't know I'm a Natural Language Processing researcher) who can also help society; just a few of the projects I've worked on, or know about, have ensured that prescription information is accurately recorded, have helped to find a new cause for cancer, and have built a system that can predict suicide attempts from medical notes. In all cases access to the medical records have been strictly controlled (the number of hoops you have to jump through can be insane) and for good reason. These documents contain a large amount of very personal information. All the data I have seen has either been from patients who have opted-in to a study (like the cancer work) or has been used on a purely non-commercial basis.

I certainly have no problem with opt-in medical studies and research within a hospital to improve patient care seems a worthwhile use of data. Selling data to outside companies, however, seems to cross a line. I'm sure that large pharmaceutical companies have strict controls in place over data, but the wider you share things the harder it is to control. And anyway, why should the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC -- the people who will collect and hold the data) be allowed to make money by selling your data? If you asked HSCIC they will of course tell you that in most cases the data they release or sell will be fully annonymized.

I certainly have no problem with releasing population statistics like the percentage of the country who suffered from flu last year. I can see that that is useful information and can in no way lead back to me, if I had flu or not. The problem with handling individual medical records is that they are often very private, and the details have been shared knowing that they are treated confidentially. By the time I see a medical record when doing research, they should have been annoymized (like the majority of HSCIC releases will be) to ensure that I can't work out who the patient is. This usually involves removing name, date of birth, address, etc. Unfortunately there are two problems with this. Firstly no matter how hard you try to annoymize a data set, it is often possible to reverse this and to uncover the people involved; two large examples of this are the AOL search dataset, and the Netflix Prize dataset. The more important problem though is that large scale annoymization is usually done automatically, and like any automatic system it will fail and some of the worst instances of this I have seen were actually in medical records. The worst case I ever saw was a large set of notes in which the names of the patients had been correctly removed throughout. Unfortunately these were letters and notes regarding social care and in many cases the names of other family members, including the patients spouse, had not been removed.

So, as the title of this post suggests, I'm torn. On one side I know from first hand experience that the data the HSCIC wants to collect can be extremely useful, while on the other hand I know that keeping it secure can be very difficult. Added to this, while I might be happy for the NHS to internally use this data for research I'm not convinced it should be sold to commercial third parties, however strict the conditions on its use might be. For example, are we talking about selling to pharmaceutical companies for research or advertising?

I've still not made a final decision on what to do about my own records, but I thought some of you might find this post an interesting reflection from both sides of the fence. Unfortunately the leaflet that was sent out didn't actually include an opt-out form. If you do decide you want to opt-out then you don't need to make a GP appointment (that would be a serious waste of the GPs time), all you need to do is send them a letter explaining that you don't want your records included, and there even a couple of websites (here and here) that have form letters you can use to make the process easy.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Proofreader's Day Off

Among the many excellent presents I got for Christmas (thanks everyone) I got a copy of the brilliant 1986 film Space Camp. The DVD release has been available since 2008 yet it has a glaring error on the front. Can anyone spot it?

Yep, they have managed to mis-align the names and faces of the cast. The actress on the far right is actually Kate Capshaw, while Kelly Preston is the actress labelled as Kate Capshaw second from the left. I can't believe this was missed when the cover was originally produced in 2008, but what I don't understand is why it hasn't been corrected in all that time?

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Last Year's Loose Ends

So the world has moved on into 2014, and yet since August I've managed just a single post on this blog. It isn't that I haven't done anything interesting since August, but for some reason I've just never got around to blogging about what I have done. I suppose at least part of the problem is having multiple blogs, and now a twitter account as well, which means that when I do have something to share this blog isn't always the most appropriate place. So to make up for the lack of posts I'm going to do one long(ish) post that will hopefully bring me up to date.

After my trip to Gent in August the rest of the summer was fairly quiet; no work or personal trips and nothing particularly interesting to report from the garden either. Things started to pick up in mid-September when we had visitors to stay for the weekend of the Penistone agricultural show, for which the weather behaved. If the summer had been quite though, I made up for that in October.

First up was a trip to Thessaloniki in Greece for a ForgetIT project meeting. This was my first trip to Greece and it was definitely an interesting place to visit even if I did keep getting mixed up with the different alphabets (note to self: write things down for taxi drivers in the local alphabet). Half the fun of these work trips is the socializing with other participants and this time was no different; the photo shows some of us watching the fish in an unbelievably clear ocean on the first evening before dinner (thanks to Søren Schaffstein for the photo, especially as I didn't take any of any interest). As usual I didn't have that much time in which to explore, but I did experience a magnitude 4.5 earthquake on the final morning; I was in a rather decrepit lift at the time which certainly added to the experience!

Given my schedlue for October it was unfortunate that I managed to pick up some form of throat infection while in Greece that left me barely able to talk. I was fine when I boarded the place home in Thessaloniki but by the time I arrived in Munich I could hardly talk at all, even copious volumes of weissbier while waiting for the plane to Manchester failed to improve things.

Five days after getting back from Greece, and with a throat that still didn't want me to speak, I headed to London to take part in the BBC #newsHACK event at Shoreditch Town Hall. I've already blogged about this event over on one of my other blogs, so I won't bore you with the technical details, but I will point you at our hack/demo and possibly more interestingly show you the video of the pitch session: If you don't want to watch all 27 demos, you can skip to around 55 minutes to see our presentation; including hearing how bad my voice was when I tried to answer a question.

I ended October with a visit to the National Railway Museum in York for a one in a lifetime chance to see the six remaining A4 steam locomotives together (two of them are usually to be found in North America). As with the #newsHACK event I blogged about this trip elsewhere, so I'll just include the obligatory photo at this point.

October also saw me being paid for the very first time for the 3D models I have on sale via Shapeways; my first sale was back in January 2013, but they only pay out when you've made at least $30. I won't claim this as profit, as I spent more than I've made on test prints, but it's a very good start! In fact someone ordered another model this morning so hopefully 2014 will be profitable.

November was again mostly taken up with work, but we did take a few days off to have a long weekend in Warwickshire so we could attend both days of the National Poultry Show at Stoneleigh Park. I always thought that it was interesting looking at marque worth of chickens at the Penistone show, but I think I was all poultried out by around lunchtime on the first day. I'm not entirely sure how many chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys we looked at but according to the programme there were nearly 7000 entires plus 500 sale pens, and as some of those will have contained more than one bird you can begin to imagine just how much there was to see. The hope was that by the end of the weekend we would have a much better idea of which breed(s) of chickens we would like to keep once we have sorted out the garden, but if anything I think it just gave us more options! Still it was a fun weekend.

December mostly saw us getting ready for Christmas and visiting relatives, and strangely I haven't taken many (if any) photos so there isn't really much to show for our travels. Anyway that brings the blog nicely up to date ready for whatever 2014 may throw at me. I hope you've all had a great holiday and wish you all the best for the new year!