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Feature - HSVO connects the dots

Feature - HSVO connects the dots

A screen capture of HSVO's patient simulator user interface. This mock-up of the patient simulator used videos from a training scenario in which students had to save the life of a teenager severely injured during a basketball game. An advanced mannequin stands in for the teenager. During this particular scenario, the students and mannequin were located in Montreal, the mannequin operator and a tutor were in Ottawa, and another tutor was located in Sudbury, Ontario. Image courtesy of McGill University and HSVO.

Don't let the name of Health Services Virtual Organization fool you. If HSVO is a success, it will be proof of concept for generic middleware that enables cloud-based workflows to access any number of services. And that could have implications for any scientific field.

Web portals that give researchers access to data, services, applications and computational resources are becoming increasingly common. Researchers can access a variety of services via a single portal. But the services themselves don't play nicely.

"Simulations like this tend to live in their own little data world," said Rachel Ellaway, one of the principle investigators for HSVO. "There is little in the way of the ability to create mashups in workflow."

Some use different data formats. Others don't provide the metadata another service may require. Still others involve proprietary technology - essentially a black box, until the relevant corporation grants permission to peer inside.

"It's about coming up with a platform that can integrate and control a great many heterogeneous devices and services," said Ellaway. "Nobody's doing anything like this."

SAVOIR (or Single Entry Point Virtual Organization) is the middleware that powers HSVO. It has two sides, explained Ellaway. "One that faces towards the application and speaks the language they all speak. The other side faces towards the service; it needs to speak the language the service speaks."

This image-based mock-up of the HSVO main interface demonstrates the drag and drop interface HSVO will offer for creating workflows. Image courtesy of HSVO and McGill University.

HSVO is already working on connecting to a wide variety of services. One, a remote controlled camera array, allows viewers to control the angle from which they view an autopsy or surgery taking place anywhere in the world. It also uses remote computational resources to digitally remove anything that is blocking the view, such as a surgeon.

Another service is a virtual patient simulator, used in training medical professionals. It connects to special mannequins that sweat, breathe, bleed, convulse and more, depending on the scenario the instructor selects wirelessly. Along similar lines, HSVO also connects to educational narrative-based simulations which Ellaway describes as a sort of "choose your own adventure game" for medical students.

The portal also connects to some more traditional virtual services. These include access to stereoscopic visualizations and tomographic images generated from cross-sectional scans. To generate and navigate the stereoscopic visualizations, HSVO accesses data from a collection created and hosted at Stanford.Then it leverages computational resources at the University of Fredericton to power an application called Remote Stereo Viewer, which was originally created at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

"As a two-year project, we're about 60 percent of the way through," said Ellaway. The first major software release, which will occur at the end of this calendar year, will be followed immediately by a period of testing and evaluation.

A functioning release will be crucial to getting services - especially private, proprietary services - to hook up to HSVO. "It's not immediately apparent to a provider exactly what the business benefits are," said Ellaway. "They need to see what the platform is actually going to be doing."

Although HSVO is only funded through August 2010, both the Northern Ontario School of Medicine and McGill University plan to continue using the system. The difficulty will be in finding funds to continue their work.

Either way, the researchers behind HSVO plan to eventually release SAVOIR as completely open source, along with the developer's kit. "We've been very careful to make it as generic as possible so that anything can be connected to it," said Ellaway. "There's nothing in it that's specific to healthcare or educational training."

-Miriam Boon, iSGTW

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