Category: Anything you want

Personal Health Calendar Feeds and a Social Care Annunciator?

Over the last few weeks and months I’ve started pondering all sorts of health and care related stuff that may help when trying to support family members a couple of hundred miles away. One of the things we picked up on was a “friendly” digital clock display (often sold as a “dementia clock” or “memory loss calendar”), with a clear screen, and easy to read date and time.

The clock supports a variety of daily reminders (“Take your pills…”) and can also be programmed to display images or videos at set dates and times (“Doctor’s today”).

One of the things this reminded me of was the parliamentary annunciators, that detail the current activity in the House of Commons and House of Lords, and that can be found all over the parliamentary estate.

Which got me thinking:

  • what if I could send a short text message or reminder to the screen via SMS?
  • what if I could subscribe to a calendar feed from the device that could be interpreted to generate a range of alerts leading up to an event (*”Doctor’s tomorrow morning”*, *”Hospital this afternoon at 2pm”*).

(Lots of other ideas came to mind too, but the primary goal is to keep the device as simple as possible and the display as clear as possible, which includes being able to read it from a distance.)

The calendar feed idea also sparked a far more interesting idea – one of the issues of trying to support family members with ongoing health appointments is knowing when they are taking place, whether you need to go along to provide advocacy or support, whether hospital stays are being planned, and so on. Recent experience suggests that different bits of the NHS ac independently of each other:

  • the GP doesn’t know when hospital surgery has been booked, let alone when pre-op assessments requiring a hospital visit are scheduled;
  • district nurses don’t know when hospital visits are planned;
  • different parts of the hospital don’t know when other parts of the hospital have visits planned,

and so on…

In short, it seems that the hospital doesn’t seem to have a calendar associated with each patient.

As with “student first” initiatives in HE, I suspect “patient first” initiatives are more to do with tracking internal performance metrics and KPIs rather than initiatives formulated from the patient perspective, but a personal “health and social care calendar” could benefit a whole range of parties:

  • the patient, wanting to keep track of appointments;
  • health and social care agencies wanting to book appointments and follow up on appointments with other parts of the service;
  • family members looking to support the patient.

So I imagine a situation where a patient books a GP appointment, and the receptionist adds it to the patient’s personal calendar.

A hospital appointment is generated by a consultant and, along with the letter informing the patient of the date, the event is added to the patient’s calendar (possibly with an option to somehow acknowledge it, confirm it, cancel it?).

A patient asks the GP to add a family member to the calendar/calendar feed so they can also access it.

A range of privacy controls allow different parts of the health and social care system to request/make use of read access to a patient’s health and social care calendar.

The calendar keeps a memory of historical appointments as well as future ones. Options may be provided to say whether an appointment was attended, cancelled or rescheduled. Such information may be useful to a GP (“I see you had your appointment with the consultant last week…”) or consultant (“I see you have an appointment with your GP next week? It may be worth mentioning to them…”)

Hmmm…thinks… is this sort of thing has this sort of thing being explored (or has it been in the past?), or maybe considered at an NHS Hack Day? Or is it the sort of thing I could put together as an NHS tech funding pitch?

PS Some of the features of the Amazon Show could also work well in the context of a health/care annunciator, but… the Amazon Show is too feature rich and could easily lead to feature creep and complexity in use; I’d have “privacy concerns” using the Amazon backend and always on Alexa/Echo mic.

Time to Revisit Tangle?

Engaged, as ever, in displacement activity, I just came across Distill (via, yet another “modern medium for presenting research”, this time “in the area of Machine Learning”.

The most recent (April, 2017) paper, Why Momentum Really Works, includes several inline embedded interactive that let you explore some of the maths described in the paper.

Another of the interactive features allows you to play with the parameters of an equation and see the result:

This interaction reminded me of Bret Victor’s Tangle.js library, which is quite old now (I’m not sure if it is/ever needs to be maintained?).

Poking around in the Distill post, I couldn’t trivially see how to create my own versions of the above tangle-like interaction, which made me think that when publishing docs like that it would be really handy if folk also documented some simple, minimal how to’s on how the interactives were created.

I was also prompted to have a quick poke around to see whether tangle like features are supports in Jupyter notebooks or Rmd/knitr/shiny. It seems that there are some old demos of using tangle in those environments – bollwyvl/ipytangle and hadley/tanglekit – but I haven’t had a chance to try them to see if they still work…

PS In passing, I note that the RSTudio folk have just produced a toolkit for generating tutorials from RMarkdown docs – Introducing learnr. Lowering the boundaries to educators creating their own interactives – again. Just a shame so few want to try out such things and explore how we might be able to make use of them… :-(

Animated GIFs created using: Giphy Capture:

But Google’s Email Scanning, in General, Isn’t Going to Stop, Is it?

A blog post, last week, from the Goog – As G Suite gains traction in the enterprise, G Suite’s Gmail and consumer Gmail to more closely align:

G Suite’s Gmail is already not used as input for ads personalization, and Google has decided to follow suit later this year in our free consumer Gmail service. Consumer Gmail content will not be used or scanned for any ads personalization after this change.

So presumably, then, Google was doing something functionally similar to the below, where emails are scanned and the results of the scanning are used directly to support personalised ad delivery:

But even though scanning “for ad personalisation” will stop, scanning of email will presumably continue – for spam detection, in support of antivirus/malware protection, to extract structured information that can be passed to other Google services…

As an example of the latter, I just booked a hotel room and the email confirmation went to my Gmail account. As if by magic, the booking details are extracted and placed in my Google calendar, which then synchs to my phone calendar: book a room online, and booking details appear the calendar on my phone.

Really useful…


Does that mean my emails can still be used to power ad personalisation, albeit at one step remove?

For example, will Google still consider events in Google calendar as fair game for generating personalised ads?

Here, the emails aren’t being used directly to drive ad personalistion, although derived versions of the data scraped from the emails are…

PS The above diagrams were generated using actdiag, a “simple activity-diagram image generator”, which runs as an online service and is also available as a python package (though it didn’t work for me in Jupyter notebooks last time I tried). To create the diagram, you write it, and the rendering is done by machine.

Here’s the script I used to create the first diagram:

  Email -> EmailScanner -> AdPersonalise -> AdDeliver -> PersonalisedAds;

  lane Google {
  lane Gmail {
  lane Scanner {
  lane AdSense {
    AdPersonalise; AdDeliver;

And here’s the second.

   Email -> EmailScanner -> Calendar  -> EventScan -> AdPersonalise -> AdDeliver -> PersonalisedAds;

  lane Google {
  lane Gmail {
  lane GoogleCalendar {
  lane Scanner {
    EmailScanner; EventScan;
  lane AdSense {
    AdPersonalise; AdDeliver;

The same service supports other chart types too.

BYOA (Bring Your Own Application) – Running Containerised Applications on the Desktop

Imagine this: you’re on a Mac, though at times you’re on a Windows box, and at other times you’ve just got a browser to hand. You’re happy using applications that get stuff done, even if it means using different tools for different purposes, but you get fed up having to find applications that you can install across all the different platforms you work on. Not least because sometimes the things don’t seem to want to install with all sorts of other stuff being installed first.

Or maybe this: you want to run some data analysis using Python, or R, in Jupyter notebooks, or RStudio, and the dataset you want to work with is quite large; which means you also need to hook up to a database, or a query engine, and get the data into a form that the database or query engine can cope with, as well as hooking up your analysis environment (RStudio, or Jupyter notebooks) to what is now a queryable datasource.

So what do you do?

Here’s what I do: I use a technology that’s been developed for another purpose, and I make it personal.

The technology is – are – Docker containers. Docker is a brand, but in part it’s the same way that Hoover, and more recently, Dyson, are brands. Say: Hoover, or Dyson, and you quite possibly mean: vacuum cleaner. Say “Docker”, and you quite possibly mean lightweight virtual machine using Linux Containers, or Open Container Initiative (OCI) containers. But Docker is easier to say/remember. And it also refers to a complete technology stack – and toolset – for working with those containers. (Read more….)

(You can skip this paragraph – it’s not how I use Docker at all…) Docker is most widely used by the people who develop web applications, and who keep web applications running at scale. It’s a devops tech (devops, short for development/operations). The devs hack the code, the ops folk get that code running for users. Traditionally, these were separate teams; now, there is some overlap, particularly if you’re running on agile and continuous integration and/or continuous deployment are your thing. Docker, in short, is something your more curious IT folk may know something about. Or not.

But I don’t care about that. Not least, because they probably don’t think about Docker in the way I do…

What I care about are some of the features that Docker has, and how I can use those features to make my own life easier, irrespective of how the folk who develop Docker, or the folk in IT, think it should be used; which is probably more along the lines of helping enterprise IT deliver enterprise across the whole organisation, rather than supporting personal, DIY, BYOA (“bring your own app”) IT that works at an individual level in the form of end-user applications, or personal digital workbenches (I’ll come on to those in a moment…)

Take the first example mentioned at the start – wanting to run the same application pretty much anywhere, without the installation grief. For example, suppose you wanted to run the OpenRefine, a rather handy browser based tool for cleaning and filtering datasets. Installing OpenRefine requires that you download and install an appropriate version of Java, as well as downloading and installing OpenRefine. What do you do?

Here’s what I do: I use Docker (which yes, does require me to download and install Docker. But I’ll pick up on that later…) And I use Kitematic (which, admittedly, I have to install from the Docker toolbar menu; note I could also launch containers from the command line…).

But first a bit of jargon…

Docker Images versus Docker Containers

One way off thinking of a docker image is as an installer file. It’s the thing you download that you can then use to install your application. In the case of docker, the image file identifies the operating system requirements of the application, as well as the application code itself. The docker application uses this information to launch a docker container, which is an instance of your application. Note that you can run multiple instances of the same image at the same time (that is, multiple containers launched from the same image). This is different to the model of having multiple documents open in the same application, such as multiple spreadsheets or word documents open in Microsoft Excel or Word. Instead, it would be akin to running several different instances of Excel or Word, with the documents open in one copy of Word isolated from and invisible to another running copy of Word.

The containers themselves can also be running or stopped; a stopped container is one that is essentially hibernating, and whose operation can be resumed. Any changes made to the contents of a container are retained if the container is stopped and restarted. Containers can also be destroyed, which is like uninstalling the application and removing all its install files. When a new container is launched, it’s a bit like reinstalling and starting a fresh installation of the application from the original installer (the docker image).


Kitematic is a desktop application (for Mac and Windows) that looks a bit like an ap store.

Using Kitematic, I can search for an OpenRefine image – in this case, ou-tm351-openrefine-test, which happens to be an image I created myself – that has been published via the Dockerhub public docker image registry.

I create the container – which downloads a Docker image that contains a self-contained operating system and all the files that OpenRefine needs to run as well as the application itself – and starts it running.

I copy the URL – in this case localhost:32771, and paste it into my browser location bar:

You may notice the Kitematic page also had a folder highlighted – this is a folder shared between the container and my desktop. Project files will be save to that folder. When I have finished with the application, I can stop it, and then restart it later. Or I can destroy it. This kills the container and removes all its files, but the base image is still on my computer. If I want to run OpenRefine again, I won’t need to download any files. But – and this is important – the application container that is started up will be completely fresh, run as-if for the the first time from the image I downloaded. Like a reinstalled application. Which is effectively what it is. But the files stored on my desktop will be shared back with it.

Stopping/starting or restarting the container is like switching it off and on again. Deleting the container in Kitematic, then searching for it again and creating a new container uses the previously downloaded files and essentially reinstalls the application.

If I want to run another application, I can  – there are lots of images available. For example, if you want to run a local version of the Dillinger markdown editor, you can find the original of that:

Note, however, that here the lack of love Kitematic has received in the last few years – I imagine because Docker are more interested in enterprise use of Docker, not personal use – because if you just try to create the container, it won’t work (you’ll get an error message). Instead, you need to specify the version of the editor you want to use explicitly. Click the dots and in order to select a tag (that is, a version):

Choose the tag/version, and close the selection dialogues – then click on the Create button:


This time, the homescreen is a little more helpful, providing a link that will launch the app in the browser. You may also get a preview of the screen (sometimes this doesn’t appear; click the Settings tab, then the Home tab, and it may refresh. As I mentioned above, Kitematic doesn’t seem to have had a lot of love since Docker bought it…)

Click the link button, and you should be redirected to the app running in your browser:

So that’s part of the story…

Viewing Application UIs and Launching Applications from Shortcuts

As well as using Kitematic to launch containerised applications, we can also use desktop shortcuts. I mentioned how we can use docker commands on the command like to launch an application – what Kitematic does is simply generate and execute those commands, and then display status and configuration information about the running container – so we can just pop equivalent commands into a shortcut, click on the shortcut and launch the application.

This is what Jessie Frazelle does with her Docker Containers on the [Mac] Desktop. The corresponding desktop-container library shelf is here: jessfraz/dockerfiles and associated shortcut definitions here: desktop-container commands. The applications are packaged to use X11 to expose the graphical user interface, so if you want to run RStudio, or Libre Office or Audacity in a desktop-container on a Mac, that could be a great place to start. Bits of guidance on getting up and running with X11 applications on OS/X can be found here: Docker for Mac and GUI applications and here: Bring Linux apps to the Mac Desktop with Docker, although this recipe seems most complete: Containerize GUI Applications on Mac.

Note: in testing, I had to install XQuartz (brew install xquartz), enabling the Security tab preference to Allow connections from network client, and socat (brew install socat), reboot, and then run socat TCP-LISTEN:6000,reuseaddr,fork UNIX-CLIENT:\"$DISPLAY\" (which is blocking) in a terminal on its own; in another terminal, I found the local IP address as ip=$(ifconfig en0 | grep inet | awk '$1=="inet" {print $2}') and could then run a docker command of the form docker run --name firefox -e DISPLAY=$ip:0 -v /tmp/.X11-unix:/tmp/.X11-unix jess/firefox which starts up XQuartz if it’s not already running; note also that on occasion I kept getting situations with the error socat[1739] E bind(5, {LEN=0 AF=2}, 16): Address already in use; the netstat command shows port 60000 waiting, but after a few minutes there’s a time out and the port is freed up; closing the docker app window also leaves the old, named container around, which needs removing with something of the form docker rm firefox before the app can be run again. Note that there is no --device /dev/snd mountpoint for docker in OS/X so no easy way to pass through audio? I’m not sure how well this would work on a Windows machine, but presumably there are X11 clients for Windows that aren’t too painful to install? I’m not sure what socat equivalent would be if the client was only listening privately and needed a tunnel from the open X11 port 6000 to the socket where the client listens for connections? (Nothing needed with xming e.g. as suggested here?

(Hmmm, thinks: a version of something like Kitematic that also bundles an X11 client could be really handy? )

Whereas Jessie Frazelle’s desktop-containers make use of the X11 windowing system to all her host operating system to display the UI of the applications running inside a container, I prefer to use applications that expose their UI via http using a browser. Where this is not possible – as for example in the case of the Audacity audio editor, it is often possible to run the application within the container and then render the desktop running in the container via a browser window using an HTML remote desktop viewer such as Apache Guacamole. Here’s an old proof of concept: Accessing GUI Apps Via a Browser from a Container Using Guacamole.

Creating a Docker Library Shelf

Another part of the story is that you can build your own images and either share them publicly via the Dockerhub registry, keep them locally on your own computer, post them to a private Dockerhub repository (you  get a single private repository as part of the Dockerhub free plan, or can pay for more…), or run your own image registry.

Using this latter option – running your own Docker registry – means you can essentially run your own digital application shelf, although I don’t think you’ll be able to use Kitematic with it without forking your own version of it to use your registry (issue)? Instead, you have to use the command line. Again, the lack of support for “personal users” of Docker is an issue, but that’s another reason to try to blog more recipes and find more workarounds, and maybe get the occasional feature request adopted if we can define a use case well enough…

Alternatively, you can just make the shelf available as a set of Dockerfiles and shortcuts, as Jessie Frazelle has done with her jessfraz/dockerfiles Github repo.

There are a couple more posts to come in this series: one looking at how we can run Docker containers on a remote host (“in the cloud”); another looking at how we can link multiple applications to provide our own linked application, digital workbenches, within which linked applications can easily share files and connections between themselves.

Easy Web Publishing With Github

A quick note I’ve been meaning to post for ages… If you need some simple web hosting, you can use Github: simply create a top level docs folder in your repo and pop the files you want to serve in that directory.

And the easiest way to create that folder? In a repo web page, click the Create New File button, and use the filename docs/ to create the docs folder and add a web homepage to it as a markdown file.

(And to create a Github repo, if it’s your first time? Get a Github account, click on the “Create New Repository” or “Add New Repository” or a big “+” button somewhere and create a new repo, checking the box to automatically create an empty README file automatically to get the repo going. (If you forget to do that that, don’t panic – you should still be able to create a new file somewhere from the repo webpage to get the repo going…)

To serve the contents of the docs folder as a mini-website, click on the repo Settings button:

then scroll down to the Github Pages area, and select as a source master branch/docs folder.

When you save it, wait a minute or two for it to spin up, and then you should be able to see your website published at

For example, the files in the docs folder of  the default master branch of my Github psychemedia/parlihacks repository are rendered here:

If you have files on you  desktop you want to publish to the web, click on the docs folder on the Github repo webpage to list the contents of that directory, and simply drag the files from your desktop onto the page, then click the Commit changes button to upload them. If there are any files with the same name in the directory, the new file will be checked in as an updated version of the file, and you should be able to compare the differences to the previous version…

PS Github can be scary at times, but the web UI makes a lot of simple git interactions easy. See here for some examples – A Quick Look at Github Classroom and a Note on How Easy Github on the Web Is To Use… – such as editing files directly in Github viewed in your browser, or dragging and dropping files from your desktop onto the a Github repo web page to check in an update to a file.

(Superfluous?) Jupyter / pandas Notebook for Wrangling TEF Excel Spreadsheets

A couple of days ago, new Wonkhe employee Dave Kernohan (congrats!:-) got in touch asking if I’d be interested in helping wrangle the as then yet to be released TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) data into a form they could work with. The suspicion was that if the data was be released in a piecemeal fashion – one Excel spreadsheet per institution – rather than as a single data set, it would be a bit of a faff to analyse…

I found an example of the sort of spreadsheet it looked might be used to publish the data in, and started hacking a notebook to parse the sheets and pull the data into a set of monolithic files.

As it was, the data was published in a variety of forms, rendering the notebook superfluous. But I’ll post it anyway as a curiosity here.

FWIW, the final, published spreadsheets differed slightly in layout and in the naming of the internal sheets, both of which broke the original notebook. The revised notebook is no less brittle – cell ranges are typically hard coded, rather than being auto detected.

The spreadsheets contain many compound tables – for example, in the following case we have full-time and part time student data in the same table. (I parse these out by hard coded cell ranges – I really should autodetect the row number of the row the headcount headers appear on and use those values, noting the number of rows in each subtable is the same…)

Also note the the use of single and multi-level columns headings in adjacent columns.

A single sheet may also contain multiple tables. For example, like this:

or like this:

As mentioned, the sheets also contained adminstrative data cruft, as revealed when opening the full sheet into a pandas dataframe:


Anyway – superfluous, as the data exists in a single long form CSV file anyway on the TEF data download site. But maybe useful as a crib for the future. Here’s a reminder of the link to the notebook.

PS another tool for wrangling spreadsheets that I really need to get my head round is databaker, which was originally developed for working with the spreadsheet monstrosities that ONS produce…

PPS the OU actively opted out of TEF, citing “justifiable reasons”… It will be interesting to see the NSS results this year… (and also see how NSS and TEF scores correlate).