Archive for January 2010

More women, money & cyber ports… Less disease please

January 29, 2010

Dr. Margaret Ann Armour with Anne McLellan

Challenging the norm
For Dr. Margaret-Ann Armour, the launch of the WinSETT Centre is a dream come true.
It’s been six years in the gestation. And, true to her roots as a chemist, she birthed the new entity with a flurry of beakers and bubbling gases in front of an appreciative crowd at the Telus Centre on the University campus.
Dr. Armour has long been known for her tireless efforts to engage and promote women in the sciences and technologies. Back in the early 1980s, she was a founding member of WISEST—Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology. The movement spread across the country.
Now, through her efforts and vision, Edmonton is home to the WinSETT Centre. An acronym for Women in Science, Engineering, Trades and Technology, this is the hub for an ambitious national effort to significantly boost the numbers of women in the workforce and change the culture of such fields as engineering and trades.
Dr. Armour points to the statistics. “Only 12 percent of engineers are women. The kind of percentages of women in construction is dismal. It’s four percent. In the sciences, it’s probably 35 percent, which is over the critical mass which makes it sustainable.”
Research shows that one major problem is that even when women do enter these fields, they tend to leave after about 10 years. The blame lies directly with an inflexible male dominated culture in the workplace.
“An awful lot of it has to do with having a family and being able work, and trying to balance the two, says Dr. Armour. “Because, if it’s a work place which is still fairly well male dominated, it has a male culture. And the male culture is, ‘you shall work 18 hours a day and always be there.’
“And women are saying, ‘I don’t want that. I don’t want that kind of lifestyle. I want a balance.’ We’re hearing that young men are saying, ‘We want a balance, too.’ So we’re hoping that things will change. But that’s been very slow.”
That theme of changing the workplace culture to retain women and improve Canadian productivity was picked by the Honourable Anne McLellan in her stunning speech at the WinSETT launch.
Among the first programs the WinSETT Centre will undertake is leadership training. According Dr. Armour, “Leaders need to appoint leaders. And, although we know it’s very important to have more women entering fields like engineering, if we don’t have women as leaders in engineering, the culture of engineering is not going to change. So when young women come into the workforce, they’re not going to stay.” √

Robin Winsor CEO of Cybera

Expanding the cyber network
The new president and CEO of Cybera is Robin Winsor. He will split his time between Edmonton and Calgary as he runs this not-for profit, university based organization set up to extend Alberta’s cyber infrastructure. His mandate is to move Cybera to the next level—into the business community.
That’s certainly a world Winsor understands. While working in the research department at Gulf, he used his knowledge of geophysics and artificial intelligence to develop the world’s first direct digital x-ray system. That was 20 years ago. He quit the day job and grew the company into a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Now, as the head of Cybera, Winsor hopes to extend the services of the cyber network to Alberta’s entrepreneurs and business community. Cybera operates cyber ports at the University of Alberta. “There are similar facilities in Calgary, Lethbridge and, by extension, through networking all over the world,” he says. “We have lots of big screen TVs. We have cameras that track us and we can sit here and have a virtual meeting. You can see so much more when you are in what we would basically call a video conference. Others are giving it fancier names like tele-presence, virtual rooms, and so on, but it does add that extra measure. And this is just a small part of the services that Cybera offers.”
Winsor is particularly keen on making Alberta’s energy sector aware of the Cybera and the use it can make of the cyber facilities.
While current access to this cyber network is somewhat limited, he says Cybera’s future goal is make access as pervasive and ubiquitous as that of the telephone. Simply plug in and you’re connected.
You can learn more about Cybera’s services at www.cybera.ca

Dr. Stefan Bachu

Recognizing excellence
Just before the Alberta Research Council was merged into the new agency, Alberta Innovates-Technology Solutions, its president and CEO John McDougall honoured one of his own. He bestowed the title of Distinguished Scientist upon Dr. Stefan Bachu—the fifth ARC scientist to receive this recognition of excellence.
Dr. Bachu is world renowned for his pioneering research on carbon capture and storage technology. In 2007, he shared a Nobel Prize as lead author to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on CO2 Capture and Storage. That’s the same Nobel Prize Al Gore received.
Today, Dr. Bachu continues his involvement at the international level. “To start with, I represent Canada on the technical group of the Carbon Sequestration Leadership Forum, which is an organization of 24 countries major energy producers and CO2 emitters. It includes countries like United States, China, Brazil, Russia, United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, and so on. Secondly, I have been asked several times to give advice to various state or local governments in various countries. So yes, I am involved.”
As a distinguished scientist, Dr. Bachu intends to continue his research into the refinement of carbon storage technology. √

Jim Edwards

Kick-starting industry research
When it comes to funding university research, one of the main granting agencies is NSERC, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
And now the Council is making more money available to encourage research partnerships between academia and industry.
Former Member of Parliament and long time Edmontonian, the Honourable Jim Edwards, is now chair of NSERC. He explains the particular focus on small and medium-size business.
“It’s a fact that 60 percent of the 100 largest companies in Canada use NSERC collaborations, but only seven percent of the smaller companies do… we’re seeking to fill that gap. Ultimately the goal is to improve Canada’s competitiveness. We invest more in academic-based research per capita than any other country in the G7. On the other hand, we trail very badly in terms of industry-based research. And so, we’re hoping, in a modest way, to be able to kick start that and we’re hoping to double the number of partnerships that exist within the next five years.”
To learn more about the NSERC industry program, visit www.NSERCPartnerships.ca

 
Capitalizing on datasets

Dr. Osmar Zian

With news that its funding has been renewed, the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning is launching into its second phase. Its scientific director, Dr. Osmar Zian, says phase two brings some new directions.
One is commercialization. The other is a major focus on biomedical applications for the machine learning and data mining technology the Centre is developing.
Says Dr. Zian, “We have applications related to cancer… It can be detecting cancer. It can be providing decision support for practitioners on the treatment or the dosage we give to patients. Predicting, for example, relapse for people. But there are other examples where we will also build data warehouses to collect data from different sources and provide decision support systems that are using machine learning and data mining techniques for decision-makers, There are techniques also that we are working on for visualization of medical images. The list goes on and on. “

Robert Murakami

For Dr Zian, turning this research into tools that can help save lives is what the new commercialization component is all about. And the man who is charged with making that a reality is Robert Murakami, the Centre’s new executive director. He’s also the president and CEO of its new commercialization arm, a company called Myriad Machine Learning. It’s his job to bring researchers and investors together to help translate the science into industrial applications.
As Murakami explains, “Machine learning is really a platform technology. It is the fundamental engine for analyzing and predicting large datasets, much like predicting new investment strategies, or new trading tools for investment management… much like predicting patient movement and predictability within a hospital environment… much like predicting whether or not the existing oil wells in this province are actually being managed efficiently. And so, because it’s such a platform technology and because we know that information technology is growing at an enormous rate—and we now have a gazillion, gazillion bits of information floating around—how does all that get analyzed and how can we actually utilize it to create something better for people?”
Through Myriad and the Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Machine Learning, Murakami is also setting the stage for the next generation of technology entrepreneurs, including a program that offers business bootcamps to university students. √

Dr. Norm Neumann

Zoning in with ozone
When it comes to prion research, decontamination is a huge issue. The misfolded prions that cause mad cow and chronic wasting disease are almost indestructible by traditional means.
But, according to Dr. Norm Neumann of the School of Public Health at the University of Alberta, experiments with advanced oxidation and ozone treatment may hold some promise. “The pathological disease, as we know it, is caused by a misfolded protein causing another normal protein to misfold. And so there’s this chain reaction that goes on. Some of the work that we’re doing demonstrates that ozone can actually destroy that protein enough to inactivate the templating properties or the pathological process that we see.
“We’ve seen that in a test tube—and the big question for us now is can we begin to understand this and model it in an engineering context and understand complete destruction of this? Then we must cross validate that information in animal infectivity models.”
Dr. Neumann suggests that, if the advanced ozone treatment works, we may one day be able to dispose of prion infected material through something as simple as composting. √
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How clean are your keys? Think infection

January 29, 2010

Randy Marsden

“The assistive technology provided is amazing in its ability to erase the boundaries of disability.”
That was what (the late) Christopher Reeve said about the OnScreen keyboard in Microsoft Windows. He and Muhammad Ali are among millions who have benefited from products developed by Randy Marsden of Edmonton.
For more than two decades, Marsden has concentrated on creating specialized computer technologies for people with physical disabilities: quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, ALS and muscular dystrophy. His career took direction with a third-year electrical engineering university project when he and another student developed a communications device for his friend, Si Peterson, a quadriplegic since a gymnastics accident in high school. Upon graduation, with funding from the National Research Council’s IRAP program and the Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research, they started Madentec Limited.
Over the years, numerous communications products (Tracker and Discover lines) emerged that have made an enormous difference to disabled people around the world—allowing them to operate computers with blinks, tooth picks, puffs or touching of lips. Spin-off technology includes various applications for cell phones and computers. In fact, Marsden is the co-founder of Swype, the cutting edge text input software used in Samsung smart phones.
But, when a dentist from France purchased his TrackerPro, it led to major changes in focus. TrackerPro is a wireless device—a small dot of reflective tape worn on the forehead, hat brim or glasses—that replaces a mouse for users with limited or no hand movement. Curious about why someone who obviously is able to use his hands would need a product designed for head movement, Marsden called the dentist.
It turned out it was actually the time-savings that motivated the dentist, who explained that he needed to view digital x-rays on computers, right in treatment rooms. Marden learned that, “Treatment rooms have strong infection control requirements and if devices were not sterilized, the dentist would have to take his gloves off to use a mouse, and de-glove and re-glove each time.”
Forming a focus group of four veteran dentists to get their perspectives, he discovered that anything within two metres/six feet of a patient’s mouth needed to be wiped down between patients. “That includes almost the entire room.”
But while TrackerPro might be a solution to the mouse problem, the ultimate challenge was really the keyboard.
“You can’t (properly) wipe down a keyboard. And, those that did use a keyboard, had them wrapped in Saran Wrap.” It had to be changed frequently, and looked unprofessional.
“Keyboards are the number one cause of bacterial infections and are more germ-infested than public toilet seats.”
Marsden points to studies that indicate hospital keyboards are known to spread infection more than any other surface—and more than 100,00 people died last year from hospital acquired infections (in North America). Patients entered with a broken leg but caught pneumonia and died because they caught a bug.
So Marsden marshaled his team. “We’re ‘input guys’… We can do this.”
They created a proof-of-concept USB keyboard: slightly smaller than a typical keyboard (15” versus 18-20”) to save cubicle space, with a completely smooth glass top with the lettering on the underside of the glass. With no nooks or crannies, it was quick and easy to wipe down and disinfect. Adjustable touch capacitive circuitry allowed it to be sensitive to the touch even when wearing gloves, and it made a clicking sound when a key was hit. Despite its smaller footprint, it housed both a numeric keypad and an integrated oval touch pad, so no was mouse needed. The bottom was constructed from machined Corian (counter-top material). It weighed a hefty 3.2 lbs./1.48kg.
In the pilot study, 12 keys on three keyboards—silicone, glass and standard plastic—were infected. After wiping with a Cavi-Wipe (disposable disinfecting towelette), they discovered no significant difference with the amount of remaining bacteria between the plastic and silicone keyboards. However, the glass keyboard was “100 times less infected” than the other two.
“We wanted market feedback… Although we had no (actual) product to sell, we booked a booth at the American Dental Association Trade Show in Las Vegas—at the last minute in January 2008.”
Unbeknownst to Marsden, his “Cleankeys” keyboard joined 27 other innovations in the new product showcase, which featured major players like Proctor & Gamble, Oral-B and Colgate. “We shared our showcase with Crest. We won Best of Show for best new product. Even better, we won by a wide margin.”
Marsden would win other awards: The 2008 ASTech Award for Societal Impact (his second win); the 2009 University of Alberta Alumni Honour Award, and the Innovation Awards from the Canadian Manufacturing and Exporters Association in 2009 and the National Research Council in January.
Cleankeys was a hit, but it was not meant to be a mass produced device. Nevertheless, orders rolled in—selling 4,500 units in 18 months. That number may not sound significant when you consider how many dentists there are around the world. Or, not a lot compared to the over one billion on-screen keyboards shipped with every copy of Windows since 1998 that bears Madentec’s copyright credits. But, it was significant enough to see the demand.
Marsden realized that the need for a cleanable keyboard went way beyond the dentist’s office. “Most keyboards aren’t used by just one person. Think clinics, schools and airport check-ins and food services—any place people share computers.” For example, automated plants like Lucerne Ice Cream were using his product.
“You can share this keyboard without sharing your germs.” It also hits closer to the Marsden home. “We have a family computer in the house and have five kids—the keyboard is disgusting.”
The need became even more apparent with infection control and H1N1 very much in the public eye, and hand sanitizers being found almost everywhere.
So, with a broader demand, updating more suitable for a wider audience became necessary. It also prompted the change of the company name to Cleankeys Inc., with Marsden as the CEO, to reflect the primary focus on keyboard design and production.
The forthcoming second-generation glass keyboard will be a wireless USB model that’s lighter and improves performance. In addition, another wireless model, made from high-grade acrylic with molded keywells with slight indentations, will be introduced.
“Some prefer glass, because it’s inert and smoother and perceived quality, but (as an alternative), acrylic is ideal—it’s harder and less susceptible to breaking. If it’s flat, they can’t feel the keys—it’s not good for touch-typists.” They need a place to rest their fingers, a challenge with his touch sensitive keyboard. So Marsden’s acrylic model incorporates an accelerometer, an electromechanical device that measures acceleration forces like the one found in Apple’s iPhone. “It’s also like the vibration sensors in a Wii remote.”
The keyboard sells for $400—high compared to typical models—but Marsden says it’s more costly to produce, and it’s niche-market justifiable. (Although we may see a consumer model down the road)
“Look at the time it saves dentists—no wrap, no gloves on and off pays off in a month or two. In hospitals, if it cuts down days not have to be spent in hospitals—that costs $5 billion a year in the U.S., not to mention the suffering and fatalities caused.” Liability is also being transferred to hospitals. “As of October 2008, U.S. insurance companies stopped reimbursing hospitals for treatment for their insured patients, if the infection was acquired in the hospital.”
While Cleankeys is primarily sold in Europe, it will be launched worldwide this month. “It’s a world market we’re taking this product to from Edmonton and we’re making it here in Edmonton.”
Logican, a boutique electronics service manufacturing company specializing in medical, military and industrial products in Edmonton Research Park, is building them. President Harvey Sheydwasser travels the world and sees the extent of the problem He believes Marsden’s technology will be widely adopted. “We’ve worked with Randy before and are happy to be part of the solution.”
Marsden, 46, hopes to help fight infection and save lives… one keyboard at a time. √

Social Media 101 Gov 2.0 – a virtual reality

January 29, 2010

I had an interesting conversation with Doug Elniski, MLA, Edmonton Calder. We spoke about his experiences using social media and reactions he’s witnessed from some of his colleagues within government on the subject. Elniski, in his own straightforward way, suggests that the there’s definitely still resistance within the Government of Alberta. Resistance he describes as mostly coming from what he calls the “bubble in the middle”—those people in government currently not utilizing social media—“essentially waiting to see what happens. The bureaucracy watches and measures the reaction, because people don’t want to subject themselves to criticism or some form of abuse.”
As a place to start and looking to find ways to shift this reality, we expanded on how folks within the “bubble” might not want to be put in a position of testing their values daily and publicly within social media. Elniski added that in government (values) “is probably the thing you get attacked on.” He’s quite at peace with where he stands on the issues and none of this bothers him. I was interviewing him for my upcoming book, due out this spring, on Government 2.0 (Gov 2.0)—a term designed to describe the “open government movement” happening around the world. Our discussion covered opinions regarding the cultural impact of Gov 2.0 inside the Government of Alberta. What has been evident to me for some time is that it will not happen without evangelists on the inside. Even then, our premier will have to see value in doing something in this regard.
What does Gov 2.0 look like and how does it change things? In a personal e-mail exchange for my book, Tim O’Reilly—who coined the term “Web 2.0”—stated that it’s “government as an open and transparent platform, a mechanism for collaborative action.” Not exactly the way many citizens would currently describe their government (at any level) I suspect, and therein lies the opportunity.
Locally, we’re witnessing a move toward “open government” at the City of Edmonton. I spoke with Chris Moore, CIO for the City and head of the I.T. Branch. Moore and his team have gone through a positive transformation and are leading the charge with respect to another core aspect of Gov 2.0: Open Data. On January 13th, the City released a “data catalogue” which provides various types of data in machine-readable format (rather than PDF), so that developers can build interesting solutions for citizens. Also, as part of this initiative, its geographic information systems data (GIS) will soon be released for free to those who need it or would like to develop software applications with it.
I’m aware of new websites and applications already in production with local developers that will impact our quality of life for the better. For example, (shameless plug) fusedlogic’s Route 411 transit application for the iPhone, was launched on January 8th. This application allows for public transit users to identify routes, bus stops and times much more easily than traditional methods. It works with data released from Edmonton, Toronto and, just in time for the Olympics, Vancouver.
Now, here’s why taxpayers will care: The City of Edmonton didn’t spend a dime of taxpayer money to improve the ETS experience by developing Route 411—fusedlogic made the investment. Tax savings is a key benefit to the Open Data concept and why, in part, Councillor Don Iveson has been a strong advocate for Gov 2.0.
Iveson submitted initial questions regarding Open Data to Council last October. I asked him why he put these questions forward to Council. He said, “Fundamentally, it’s about transparency, empowerment and collaboration, and those are superb democratic values. Much of this data we have but we don’t do a good job of sharing it or providing access. There is an imbalance of power between government and citizens, the ‘we-know-better-because-we-have-all-the-facts’ attitude. It can be difficult for citizens to get the facts (data). Also, I think there’s been fear in government about the loss of power when data gets in the hands of people and they won’t know what to do with it.” Iveson concluded, “Let people have the info and make an argument… and, if the argument is wrong, let the process take over…”
There is simply no doubt that Government 2.0 and, by extension Open Data, is the right way to go for all levels of government in terms of direct and indirect benefits to citizens. This being the case, I believe Albertans need to call upon Premier Ed Stelmach and the Government of Alberta to hire a CIO for the province. We need to move government from a “need-to-know” mentality to one of a “need-to-share.” That CIO would coordinate with municipal level officials like Moore, as well as the feds, to bring the Gov 2.0 aspect into policy discussions enterprise-wide.
The result for Albertans would be tax savings, efficiencies for government and citizens alike. Frankly, this isn’t a question of “if” Gov 2.0 is coming. It’s already here. √

First to market Sync on demand- for small business

January 4, 2010

The PureInbox team: Pandora Lam, Ryan Akerboom, Sam Huang, Brian Henker, Hoyin Li and John Mah

Sam C. Huang’s business took him from Edmonton across the globe. While in China and Taiwan to market his own software, he realized that although he used a smart mobile device, he didn’t have access to some information back home.
“We’re in the world of communication and I don’t have it.” It took the frustration of not having all his information at his fingertips to have a sudden realization. “So, why don’t we just build something?”
What Huang needed was for all of his data to be synchronized regardless of where he was and what device he was using. “When we step away from our desktops, we only have a snapshot of our world.” A picture is still—static in nature, not dynamic—and Huang treasures the sense of being connected.
“We think we have total access… we have our contacts and our calendar. We don’t get the whole thing. We don’t have everything in our palm (of our hand).”
As a businessman, Huang saw having information in multiple places at different points in time as a false sense of connectivity. “It’s unproductive. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
So, for a couple of years, Huang carried a Windows mobile device using ActiveSync, an application developed by Microsoft. His attitude at that time: Who needs a Blackberry? “But then I switched over and sold myself to the dark side,” he says jokingly.
Even then, what he thought he really needed was only affordable to larger organizations. “Enterprise people have access to all kinds of technology and it’s expensive.” He adds that Research in Motion’s BES (Blackberry Enterprise Service) is used by banks, FBI and government requiring staff, server hardware and software, and needs to be maintained. “BES also charges you through the roof. It doesn’t make sense for small companies; it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars—very expensive.”
And, while Huang says RIM offers a consumer version called Blackberry Internet Service, he feels it’s not adequate for today’s small business needs.
Huang knew something needed to be done, so he created Syncamatic, selecting the Blackberry as his mobile platform of choice. “No sense doing another MobileMe,” he says referring to Apple’s answer to synchronizing data. “Why would you even try?
Syncamatic will use a totally wireless solution that maintains synchronization of the data through the Amazon cloud computing server.” It will not only allow users to free themselves from their USB shackles, it will also be platform independently. It will allow most Blackberry models running OS 4.6 to talk to a Mac and a PC over the air… to synchronize, not through a USB cable, but over the air.
“It has never available before to consumers.”
Even RIM couldn’t do that, Huang states. In fact, just two months ago, RIM released its software to connect a Macintosh to a Blackberry—via cable.
Huang’s Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for Syncamatic is the automatic way to synchronize, protect and transfer data for the mobile user. His program will also be affordable as both a free and a premium version. The free version will allow you to sync on demand but you would need to log in to the application and select the option to perform the synchronization.
“It’s a manual process. The secret—or what you give up—is that below the button, there will be some advertising to offset some development costs.”
The premium, or commercial pay version as Huang calls it, differs in the sense that the program sits in the background. If you make changes on one device, it checks on a regular basis and will automatically update in the background. It constantly checks both ways: For example, if you simultaneously punch in a contact on the desktop and add a calendar event on your phone, Syncamatic will bring them all together.
“It’s simple: Every device will look up to the cloud. The program will ask ‘What’s the latest change? What am I missing?’ Then it will update each device.”
The product is currently in Private Beta and the consumer downloadable version was scheduled to be available at Syncamatic.com just prior to Christmas. “This version will be free. They can download it for free and use it for free—forever.”
Huang, 31, downplays his humble beginnings as well as his success. His family came to Edmonton before he was 18. He attended Jasper Place Composite High School and studied general science at the University of Alberta. In 1997, he took home a Business Chamber Trophy and was recognized as the Best Student in Computer Programming.
His current venture, Pure Inbox, was incorporated in 2008. Prior to the development of Syncamatic, the company offered an application that allowed you to use your existing phone just like Gmail. Although PureInbox is no longer accepting new sign-ups for that app, it continues to support existing users.
Huang’s original claim to fame was his first start-up five years prior, as president and CTO of Gennux Microsystems. In a short time, it became one of Alberta’s fastest growing technology companies, providing unique cost-effective IT solutions and systems to businesses, as well as a unique anti-spam product.
In 2005, the company took home the Alberta VenturePrize and was identified as one of the “global up-and-coming companies” to watch. Huang was heralded as one of rising stars in the Alberta IT industry.
Pure Inbox is happy to call the Edmonton Research Park home. “They have the services we need, so we can focus on what we need to do.”
The landlord is equally happy about the success of its tenant. “I am thrilled that Syncamatic, a product developed at the Edmonton Research Park, is being sold and distributed around the globe,” says Candace Brinsmead, vice-president of technology.
The majority of staff is also from Edmonton. Having traveled to China, Huang knows how cheap it is to hire developers from there, but prefers to stay local. He is impressed with the quality of work being performed by graduates of the University of Alberta, his Alma Mater.
One recent hire is Ryan Akerboom, 23, who graduated with distinction from the computer engineering, software co-op program. “I’m happy to be working here. It’s a relaxed atmosphere and it’s the exact type of thing we studied for.”
Huang is also excited about the future and is confident that with Syncamatic, Pure Inbox is heading in the right direction. “We’re the first there—first to market.”
“Anyone, even the Chinese, can make phones. Right now, it’s about the apps. They are beginning to flood the market. We have 10 flashlights… we’re in the app world 1.0 era.” In the next few years it will be contextual, location based—not about dumb apps but rather about apps and services.
“You need services to drive the application. Everyone is watching Apple and Blackberry.” And Syncamatic will be right there with them.
Huang is heading off to Barcelona in February as part of the Alberta contingent to world mobile conference where Pure InBox will be setting up a booth on an international stage. “I’m excited to see how the European market will react.” √

Monitoring Alberta’s biodiversity…from mites to moose

January 4, 2010

Jim Herbers

In her famous song, Joni Mitchell sang, “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”
When it comes to Alberta’s biodiversity, let’s hope we never get to that point.
That’s why the scientists behind the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute have developed a reporting system that tells us just where we sit on that spectrum between paradise and a parking lot.
They run a program that monitors the health of Alberta’s wildlife and ecosystems across the province.
As director of information for the ABMI, it is Jim Herbers’ job to communicate to the public, government, industry and the scientific community just where we are at in terms of protecting or destroying our natural world.
“In a nutshell, you manage what you measure,” he says, pointing to the scale of many of the new development policies in Alberta. There’s the Land Use Framework, the Energy Strategy, and there’s heightened interest in the cumulative effects of human activity on the landscape.
Herbers explains, “We traditionally have very little in terms of knowledge that operates at that scale. So being able to report on Alberta’s regions, parklands, prairies, municipalities even, certainly the new Land Use Framework regions, our program fills a gap in that information.”
Getting that information is truly a magnificent feat.
The ABMI scientists have mapped the province into a systematic grid of data collection points. In total there are 1656 points, each placed 20 kilometres apart. When the program is running at full capacity, each point will be visited on a five-year rotation.
About 30 percent of the sites are on private land, so the ABMI consults with ranchers and landowners to obtain permission to monitor biodiversity on their properties. The grid also covers the national parks, military lands, crown land, and municipalities like Edmonton and Calgary.
“When we go to a site,” says Herbers, “we collect information on the understorey vegetation, the overstorey vegetation, trees, the bird community, moss community, lichen community, fungi and invertebrates in the soil. We’ve also got an aquatic component that is coupled with that information about the state of Alberta’s aquatic resources.”
The sites are surveyed the same way on each five-year visit. “We can look at how they’ve change through time and relate that to how Alberta is managing the resources out there on the land base.”
Conducting the surveys is a demanding job for the young and the fit—those rare souls who can handle the rugged outdoors and all it offers in terms of weather and bugs.
A crew of two people will survey a site in the spring, collecting data on birds, trees, habitat and deadwood. A month later the crew returns to survey the plants. They also take note of bugs in the soil, moss, lichens and other features.
In the summer, a different crew visits a wetland near the grid point. “They will put a boat in the water and float out there with their hip waders. They take samples of the water to look at the habitat quality and bugs that are living in the water as well as the plants that are living on the shores of those wetland systems. And then finally some poor, unfortunate soul has to go out in January, February or March, and do a survey for winter tracks. So they are looking for moose, deer, coyotes, lynx, fox… those kind of mammals that are active in the winter are also surveyed.”
Samples of plants and organisms are sent to the Royal Alberta Museum for identification.
This has led to some exciting discoveries. Take the lowly mite, for example. Smaller than the head of a pin, these spider-like organisms play an important role in maintaining soil vitality. “We’re very proud to report that there’s well over a hundred new species to Canada that we’ve identified and well over thirty new species to the world.”
Once all is said and done, the field biologists are collecting data on two to three thousand species. While this may seem an extraordinary number, it is just a smidgeon of what’s out there.
“There are more than 80,000 species that we know of, and that number is probably twice as high living in Alberta,” Herbers points out.
Rather than simply focusing on rare and endangered species, the ABMI scientists chose to report on a variety of species that would give an indication of the overall health of Alberta’s biodiversity.
But what happens with this massive collection of data?
“It comes here to the University of Alberta. All of the data goes through quality control with our partners at the Alberta Research Council as well as at the Royal Alberta Museum. They send that information here to the U of A where we store and manage that data.”
The public, industry and government can access the raw data from the ABMI website for use in their own monitoring or modeling programs.
As well, through detailed analysis, the ABMI scientists distill all the information down to one number that indicates the state of biodiversity in a region.
According to Herbers, “We use a scale of zero to 100 where 100 represents a pristine habitat, a wilderness area where there’s very little human footprint, and zero represents a parking lot, [or] an area where there is a gravel pit, for example, with no biodiversity living there.”
Last February the ABMI issued a report for the lower Athabasca Planning region. This covers a vast area from the Northwest Territories down to Cold Lake and Lac La Biche. “The current human footprint in that area is seven percent. That’s roads, energy activity, forestry activity, urban activity, and in the south, agriculture. And our data are showing that the intactness for that entire region is 94 percent intact today.”
Herbers goes on to predict that as more oil sands mines and energy projects come on line, biodiversity in the region will decline.
This first report from the ABMI focused on birds and vascular plants in northeastern Alberta. Despite the relatively high level of intactness, the survey indicates that some non-native species are moving into the boreal region.
These include, says Herbers, “the American crow, the common dandelion, some of the European or non-native clovers seem to be expanding and aggressively starting to colonize the northeastern part of the province. On the flip side of that, when we are talking about species declining or becoming much rarer, in the species that we looked at, there’s no strong evidence that many of the species are declining today.”
But that can change over time, a state which future surveys will reveal.
“This whole program really comes down to sustainability and informed understanding about what the outcome of our activities are on Alberta’s landscape. Our industry partners, the companies that are operating on Alberta’s landscape, are interested in making sure they are operating in a way that is sustainable.”
It’s a decade now since a handful of concerned biologists and forest ecologists sat down to discuss over a few beers the need to systematically document change in Alberta’s biodiversity. It took five years to develop the scientific protocols to conduct the surveys. Today, the ABMI initiative has evolved into a world class monitoring program. And industry benefits from the consistent, harmonized approach to the collection of data which they can then use in their own research initiatives.
The ABMI offers a program that is designed to monitor the state of biodiversity across Alberta in perpetuity. But keeping the money in place to carry out the program is an ongoing endeavour. To run the program at full capacity would cost $12 million a year but that goal is still some distance away.
Funding partners include forest and energy companies, the federal and provincial governments, as well as the University of Alberta, Alberta Research Council, Royal Alberta Museum, and the Alberta Conservation Association.
With the economic downtown, the provincial government put the squeeze on the ABMI early in 2009. “We were asked to scale back our operations to the tune of $2.1 million. And we made some pretty tough decisions about being able to provide relevant information at appropriate scales,” says Herbers. As a result, the ABMI has concentrated all of its efforts in two of the seven provincial regions, the Lower Athabasca Planning and the South Saskatchewan Planning Region. “It takes a big commitment to get out there to measure each one of these sites.”
The ABMI is still working its way through its first rotation in order to establish a baseline of those 1656 points on the grid. Herbers reports, “We’ve visited about 350 sites and the majority of them are north of Edmonton to Fort McMurray and then across to Grande Prairie. We’ve started to do quite a bit of work around Calgary right down to the U.S. border, and then east-west to the Saskatchewan and BC borders.”
You can see for yourself what has been documented on the Alberta Biodiversity Monitoring Institute website at http://www.abmi.ca

InnovativeInnovationFramework

January 4, 2010

Doug Horner

Out with the old… in with the new. That’s what the New Year has rung in for Alberta’s research and innovation community.
Effective January 1, 2010, the new Alberta Research and Innovation Act replaces 10 provincial research and technology agencies with five. And they all hang their hats on the “Alberta Innovates” moniker.
The Alberta Heritage Foundation for Medical Research now becomes Alberta Innovates – Health Solutions.
Alberta Ingenuity, iCORE and the 89-year old Alberta Research Council are now combined under one roof as Alberta Innovates – Technology Futures.
The Alberta Energy Research Institute now becomes Alberta Innovates – Energy Solutions.
And ASRA, the old Alberta Science and Research Authority will now be called the Alberta Research and Innovation Authority or ARIA.
The provincial government calls the exercise a re-alignment, and writes in its news release, “A stronger and more aligned provincial research and innovation system will enable the system to focus on Alberta’s strategic priorities, and be proactive in delivering on those priorities.” 
For Advanced Education and Technology Minister Doug Horner, it is the culmination of a process he began a couple of years ago to streamline the innovation framework in the province by introducing four priorities for research—health, biosciences, energy and environment—with a strong emphasis on commercialization.
Last spring, when Horner introduced Bill 27 into the Legislature, he said the change was about alignment and focus. Referring to now the defunct Life Sciences Research Institute, he offered this explanation for the restructuring. “When you look at the number of organizations that we have within the province, they’ve been created in some cases out of a desire to react to a specific sector, or a specific proposal. But, to give you an example, life sciences… the Life Sciences Institute crosses a number of different territories: nanotechnology, biosciences. It crosses into the health field. So why wouldn’t you group that under one?”
There have been some changes at the top. John McDougall, president and CEO of the Alberta Research Council for many years, has retired. Dr. Peter Hackett, president and CEO of Alberta Ingenuity, stepped down in October. Officially he’s on secondment to the University of Alberta where he is now an executive professor with the School of Business, a special advisor to the vice-president of research, and a Fellow with the national Institute for Nanotechnology. Never a dull moment for Peter.
The Minister has also announced some new appointments as chairs of the boards of directors for the new agencies.
Art Froehlich will chair the board of AI – Bio Solutions. Eric Newell takes on AI – Energy and Environment Solutions. Robert A. Seidel, QC, will guide AI – Health Solutions. And Ron Triffo steps up to the plate for AI – Technology Futures. 
As for ARIA, Dr. Marvin Fritzler from the University of Calgary is about the only one to maintain his grip on the helm.
There are still many questions and details to be ironed out as the day-to-day changes become a reality for the people who’ve served these organizations and Alberta’s science and technology community for so many years. 
More in-depth information is available on the government website at: www.aet.alberta.ca/research/system/mandates/framework.aspx

Hired!

January 4, 2010
 

Chris Lumb

TEC Edmonton now has a new CEO. It has lured Micralyne boss Chris Lumb into its operation.
Lumb has a proven record in growing a startup company into a thriving corporation.
TEC Edmonton is a joint venture between Edmonton Economic Development Corporation and the University of Alberta to commercialize high tech discoveries. √