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Information Technology

Knowledge and inclusion

The first results of the projects of the Microsoft Research-FAPESP Institute aimed at seeking progress in science and social impact are released

BRAZWe are beginning to get the first results of a research effort aimed at making advances in information technology (IT) knowledge as well as at producing applications with a social impact. The coordinators of the five projects that have been financed since 2007 by the Microsoft Research-FAPESP Institute for IT Research presented the preliminary results of their projects, at a workshop held at FAPESP’s headquarters on November 19 of last year. The occasion also saw the announcement of two new projects, selected in the second round of the institute’s proposals. What the projects have in common is their focus on complex scientific issues, whose solution will provide benefits in the fields of digital inclusion, public health, agriculture and the efficiency of public services.

“This effort by FAPESP together with São Paulo’s scientific community in a group of areas linked to IT is aimed at increasing the impact and the international visibility of the good science that is being carried out in this state,” said Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s scientific director. The aim of the FAPESP – Microsoft partnership is not to solve Microsoft’s technological problems, but rather to develop future applications for IT. Microsoft provides aid for research carried out in Brazil and wishes to add to the projects that are already underway,” declared Daron Green, senior researcher for Microsoft’s external investigations.

The project “PorSimples: simplification of Portuguese text for inclusion and digital accessibility” develops tools to simplify the language of the Portuguese texts found on the web to make them easier to understand for both children and adults who are in the process of learning to read and write, as well as for those who are effectively illiterate and for people with cognitive disorders. The PorSimples team, coordinated by Sandra Maria Aluisio, from the São Carlos Institute of Mathematical Sciences and Computer Science, which is part of the University of São Paulo (USP), has already chosen a sentence-structure analyzer that identifies complex structures and has adapted a speech analyzer that can show the relationships between the parts of a text, making it easier to understand. Nine summarizers of Portuguese were assessed, some of which had been built by the team, in order to come up with the one that was deemed the most appropriate for the project. A tool that removes redundancies was also created to make texts shorter.

“The objective is to help those who have problems understanding long texts and complex sentence structure, and in inferring information implied in the texts. Our proposal is to create web pages that are universally accessible, by ensuring that the texts in Portuguese are clear and simple so that they can easily be understood by a larger number of readers,” explained Sandra Aluisio. One of the main focuses of the project is the creation of two software programs. One of these, which is at a more advanced stage of development, aims at helping authors to prepare simplified versions of their texts before they are published. The author submits the text to the program, which proposes a new version with less complex constructions and words that most people can understand more easily. The second tool aims at doing the same thing with texts that have already been published on the web; the challenge is to produce a new text that remains coherent, because the author will not intervene in the final result.

Health by cell phone
To use palm-top computers or smart phones to help personnel working on programs such as family healthcare is the aim of Project Butterfly: an integrated mobile computing system for in-home healthcare. The team, coordinated by Fábio Kon, a professor in the Computer Department at USP’s Institute of Mathematics and Statistics, is developing a system that enables healthcare personnel to download onto their cell phone the medical history of the patient who is to be visited, as well as to add data, transmit images and data to a specialist and to receive an initial diagnosis from the latter in real time. The project already has an initial prototype, which has been tested as part of the care process of 40 patients who have mobility problems and who therefore must be seen at home. “I having been developing software for 15 years now and recently I began to worry about the real impact of my research on society. So I began to look for themes that might affect people’s lives. That is where my interest in this project stems from,” says Fábio Kon.

This initiative demands research efforts on four fronts. One of these is the cryptography, to ensure that the patient data stored in the cell phones circulates securely. “From the scientific point of view, there is significant potential for developing new cryptography processes,” explains Kon. “The cryptography algorithms are heavy and cell phones have weaker processors. So you need to come up with new algorithms,” he states. Another front is research into multimedia. The challenge is to develop means of capturing and storing information in the form of text, video, image diagnosis exams, as well as being able to access them efficiently. The third front is linked to the public health sector. An attempt is being made to develop concepts to guide the computer models that will manage the systems. Lastly, it was necessary to develop software that can run on cell phones as well as on large servers – a prototype is currently being tested.

Struggle against bureaucracy
Increasing the efficiency of the services provided by the public sector is the target of the project “X-gov: an application of the media concept coupled with electronic public services”. Coordinated by the researcher Lúcia Vilela Leite Filgueiras, from the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP), this looks into ways of coordinating various types of media – internet, wireline phones, cell phones and interactive TV – in order to carry out certain stages of government services. Efforts are being made to develop a tool to form the basis for various types of operations, which would make it possible to make adjustments to the type of electronic service offered to the population. “The simpler and more adaptable the software is, the more likely it is that it will be implemented and that the service will be less bureaucratic,” explains the researcher from the Department of Computer Engineering and Digital Systems of the Polytechnic School at the University of São Paulo (USP).

The project’s team created 18 components that can be combined in different public service applications. A pilot application uses seven of these systems to provide access to information about state schools. Once the schools’ databases are connected to the system it will be possible to register at such schools electronically. It will be possible to carry out the consultation to get information and to perform the actual service using cross-media, taking advantage of the specific advantages for the presentation and transmission of data from cell phones, the internet and interactive TV.

At present, one can only consult one’s status regarding certain government bodies via the internet. This is the case, for instance, of Detran (the State Traffic Department), which allows one to access information on fines and penalty points on one’s driving license. The software would expand the possibilities of virtual interaction between citizen and government, sending warnings and messages by e-mail or cell phone and thereafter by interactive TV, in addition to the replacing those stages that currently demand the user’s presence at government offices. “Working with crossed media also has repercussions regarding the inclusion of people with special needs, because they would have access to services via the medium that suits them the most,” explains the project’s coordinator.

Architecture of social networks
The project “E-citizenship: systems and methods necessary for the creation of a culture mediated by information and communication technologies”, aims at developing a social networking architecture akin to that seen, for instance, in Orkut, a social networking site, enabling people from different social classes or with different needs to interact – the idea is that they can easily share information – in order to swap products, services, ideas, goods and engage in other activities. “We use the concept of ‘socially responsible design’ so that the technologies are used for the benefit of Brazilian society, which faces challenges of various kinds, including a low level of literacy,” says Maria Cecília Baranauskas, the project’s coordinator and a professor at Unicamp’s Institute of Computer Science. The design of the systems available, explains the researcher, was not concerned with making it easier for all social segments to gain access. “So it’s up to us to create this interface in such a way that when people look at the screen they immediately know what to do, they manage to understand and use the system to communicate and exchange information with each other,” states Maria Cecília.

Through computer networks, everyone can share the widest possible range of resources, but easy and universal access is still a challenge. There are technological, educational, cultural, social and economic barriers that hinder interaction. Therefore, Maria Cecília says, an effort is being made to overcome those barriers by creating systems, tools and models that should make it easier for people to gain access to this knowledge. The E-citizenship team has already discussed the characteristics of systems that involve social networks in order to define the type of architecture that would be used for the project’s proposed software. A prototype of the software should be ready at the start of the year, including information generated by three workshops carried out with the participation of Vila União, a Campinas community that is the project’s target.

The project “E-farms: a two-way highway between small farms and the networking universe” has two aims: to produce the scientific knowledge needed to move forward, investigating new algorithms and mathematical models for agriculture, and to develop computing tools to promote collaborative, low-cost access for cooperatives and small farmers for the strategic information needed in agricultural decision-making. “This is a two-way project because, while we intend to make it easier for the farmer to get access to information that is important to his business, we also need his feedback and involvement in order to keep a network of producers and cooperatives informed,” explains the project’s coordinator, Claudia Bauzer Medeiros, a professor at Unicamp’s Computer Science Institute.

According to her, the path for transmission of data from the field to the internet was laid down during the project’s first year. “The first temperature sensors were set up on Unicamp’s campus, simulating a local network on a rural property, and the data is transmitted over a wireless network to a computer at the School of Agricultural Engineering, which in turn forwards it to the Computer Science Institute, where it is published in real time on the web,” she explains. The next step is to conclude, during the course of the next year’s research, the second “way” that the project’s title mentions: to program and intervene in the sensors via the same wireless infrastructure. In addition, various scientific results were obtained in the first year, with new harvest prediction models and satellite image processing algorithms, which can, for instance, recognize specific patterns of a type of crop within an image, facilitating their identification and, as a result, reducing the cost of harvest forecasting. These results are being published at Congresses and in indexed magazines. “E-Farms is a good example of a project where scientific advances are used to solve major economic and social problems,” says the project’s coordinator. “Working in applied areas poses particular challenges that end up generating new scientific questions. When you help solve a problem, you start to notice other things – and that leads to new problems to be solved,” states the coordinator. The project has the collaboration of researchers from Unicamp’s College of Agricultural Engineering and the Center for Meteorological and Climate Research Applied to Agriculture (Cepagri), and has a partnership arrangement with the Cooxupé agricultural cooperative, which comprises 11,000 coffee producers in the states of São Paulo and Minas Gerais.

New projects
The workshop held at FAPESP on November 19 saw the presentation of two new proposals selected by the FAPESP-Microsoft Research Virtual Institute of Research as part of the second round of research projects, which will have two years to generate results. One of them, to be coordinated by Jacques Wainer, a professor at Unicamp’s Computer Science Institute, will seek to develop an information system to detect changes in images at the back of the eye that indicate diabetic retinopathy, a side effect of diabetes that affects the flow of blood and that can lead to blindness.

The project is being undertaken in partnership with the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp). The idea is to develop software capable of detecting changes at the back of the eye, such as hemorrhages, vascular alterations, scars and any signs of inflammation. The program will be used to select those patients who need to have specialized medical tests. “The challenge is to create a highly sensitive system, capable of identifying everyone who has this disease; otherwise it could harm some patients,” says Wainer. Therefore, during the software’s development phase, all patients whose retinas are imaged will also get medical care. To develop the system, the researchers will use characteristic point techniques, used for analyzing various types of images, but they will need to create new scientific approaches to solve problems that are specific to diabetic retinopathy. After the system has been assessed, it will be put into effect at the Basic Health Unit in the Vila Mariana district of the city of São Paulo, as part of the Cataract and Diabetes Collective Effort, organized by Unifesp’s Institute of Vision.

The second project, to be coordinated by professor Flávio Soares Corrêa da Silva, from the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Mathematics and Statistics, aims at developing a software architecture called JamSession, which allows one to construct virtual worlds, such as the well-known Second Life, but in a decentralized fashion: instead of using one large server, these environments would be based on several interconnected computers. “There are virtual worlds that focus on entertainment, and one of their features is that they have an owner, because the service is provided by a company. The idea is to create a point-to-point network that replaces the server,” says Flávio.

“Currently, these initiatives are difficult to implement. You need to be a superb programmer to succeed in setting up your network. The idea is to take advantage of certain recent advances in the field of artificial intelligence, an area that I have experience in, to simplify interactions within virtual worlds,” explains the researcher. The idea, according to the professor, is that anybody who has broadband internet access can create his own space in this virtual world and, perhaps, offer services that result in income. There are various possibilities but, just as an example, one might set up virtual classrooms in this world, in which students and teacher interact via computers.