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Harris County connects students in need to free high-speed internet and devices

Harris County is making sure all kids stay connected during the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Pixlr

Schools around the nation are in a rush to return to normalcy despite the pandemic. So varied are the opinions on how to reopen that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo just released a "roadmap" for reopening.

One pressing issue is the massive digital divide between households that have internet access at home and those that do not — especially as school districts push for virtual learning. Roughly one-third of households with children ages 6 to 17 and an annual income below $30,000 a year do not have a high-speed internet connection at home, according to a 2020 Pew Research Study.

To that end, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved two programs aiming to end the digital divide in Harris County. The $32 million combined programs will provide more than 120,000 mobile hot spots (with unlimited data plans) and more than 250,000 devices (such as tablets and laptops) for students during the pandemic and for the remainder of the school year, according to a press release.

The programs use CARES Act Funds allocated by the Federal Government. A dollar-for-dollar match from the Texas Education Agency is also part of the funding. Nationwide carriers T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon are partnering with the program.

Once purchased, the devices and hot spots will become permanent property of the districts, which will then distribute to students within four and 12 weeks, according to the release.

"On one hand, I am thrilled we are offering help to families with the goal of flattening the education access curve," said Commissioner Garcia. "However, it pains me that it took a pandemic to close the gap between kids with reliable access to the internet at home and those that, in some cases are having to use mom or dad's smartphone to do their homework, if such a device is even available in the home. This is a great example of what we can accomplish when the state of Texas and local counties work together to help people in need."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

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Building Houston

 
 

Meet MIA — Houston Methodist's new voice technology assistant. Photo via Getty Images

Hey, MIA. Start surgery.

These are the words Houston doctors are learning to say in the operating rooms, thanks to a first-of-its-kind voice technology developed by the Houston Methodist's Center for Innovation in collaboration with Amazon Web Services. In the same way we use programs like Alexa or Siri to make our everyday tasks easier, the Methodist Intelligent Automation, or MIA, is allowing medical professionals to improve the way they interact both with technology and patients alike.

"There's been a push in the industry for a long time that people sitting behind computers and typing and staring at a computer screen is inadequate," says Houston Methodist Chief Innovation Officer Roberta Schwartz. "There's been a desire to return people back to each other rather than physicians and look at a screen and patients look at a doctor looking at a screen."

Currently in its pilot phase, MIA is working to do just that through two key functions that shift the way medical professionals work in what Schwartz calls the "era of electronic medical records."

The first is through operating room voice commands. Here medical professionals can run through a series or checklists and initiate important actions, such as starting timers or reviewing time of anesthesia, through voice instead of by typing or clicking, which can become cumbersome during lengthy and highly detailed surgeries. Information is displayed on a large 80-inch TV in the operating suite and following surgery all of the data captured is imported into the traditional EMR program. The technology has been prototyped in two Houston Methodist O.R. suites so far and the hub aims to trial it in a simulation surgery by the end of the year.

Additionally, the hub is developing ambient listening technology to be used in a clinical setting with the same goal. Houston Methodist and AWS have partnered with Dallas-based Pariveda to create specialized hardware that (after gaining patient permission) will listen into doctor-patient conversations, transcribe the interaction, and draft a note that is then coded and imported directly into the EMR.

"For EMR the feedback is that it's clunky, it's click-heavy, it's very task oriented," says Josh Sol, who leads digital and clinical innovation for Houston Methodist. "Our goal with the Center for Innovation and this technology hub is to really transform that terminology and bring back this collaboration and the patient-physician relationship by removing the computer but still capturing all the pertinent information."

The ambient listening technology is further off and is currently in user acceptance testing with clinicians.

"They've had some great feedback, whether it's changing how the note is created, changing the look and feel of the application itself," Sol adds. "All feedback is good feedback at this point. So we've taken it in, we prioritize the work, and we continue to improve the application."

And the hub doesn't plan to stop there. Schwartz and Sol agree that the next step for this type of medical technology will be patient facing. They envision that in the near future appointment or surgery prep can be done through Alexa push notifications and medication reminders or follow up assessments could be done via voice applications.

"It's all going to be of tremendous value and it's coming," Schwartz says. "We may be taking the first baby steps, but each one of these voice technologies for our patients is out there on the horizon."

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