When seven Houston Public Libraries were damaged during Hurricane Harvey, the library system rolled out its resources to the communities that needed it most. Photo courtesy of Houston Public Library Foundation

To those that think the Houston Public Library has a dearth of innovation, think again.

"If people don't think libraries are relevant, they just need to visit one," says Sally Swanson, executive director of the Houston Public Library Foundation. "The 21st century library really is a technology hub.

"The libraries here in Houston have been around over a hundred years, but regardless of what decade it was in, it has always kept up with the needs of the community, therefore it always has to be innovative."

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, seven libraries across Houston were forced to close due to extreme flood damage. To mitigate the loss, the HPL decided to modernize its Mobile Express Unit, a custom-built technology lab and library on wheels designed to bring access to technology and programs to high-need neighborhoods.

"Even though the hurricane was two years ago, the damage in Houston was so extensive, that only one of those seven locations has reopened," says Swanson. "The other ones are still in need, so having the Mobile Express now will bridge that gap until the city is able to reconstruct or reopen those closed locations.

"Thanks to the renovated Mobile Express, we'll be able to go to community centers, to schools and to other events. Basically, we're bringing the library to the people."

With the help of The Brown Foundation Inc., John P. McGovern Foundation, The Powell Foundation, corporate partner Crown Castle and thousands of donations from generous Houstonians, the HPL will use the $325,000 vehicle outfitted with advanced programmatic features to expand services to a growing waiting list of neighborhoods in need.

"We couldn't have done this without the generosity of the Houston community," says Swanson. "The vehicle itself was $325,000 and there was another $30,000 added in for technology. I would really like to thank our significant donors that made this vehicle possible. Thanks to that outpouring of support, this is now our reality."

The Mobile Express Unit, which will begin venturing out and serving the community in early February, has three touchscreen monitors, one desktop tower, 12 student Apple MacBook laptops and 10 iPads in a training room, eight tech lab workstations and a 3D printer.

"Even though we've had the public debut, it hasn't started accepting appointments yet," says Swanson. "The Mobile Express is operated through the Houston Public Library's Community Engagement division. They will have the online schedule and they have a driver and a program team that will go out and bring activities to people. The beauty of this is that it's free to the public."

As a fun way to get the word out, the HPL is sponsoring a contest for kids to name the Mobile Express Unit's robot mascot. Kids that enter the vehicle will be able to use the mascot to learn robotics and whoever wins the naming contest will receive that same robot, with five runners up receiving five slightly smaller versions of the robot.

"The beauty of the Mobile Express is its versatility," says Swanson. "There is a need for getting kids engaged in STEM activities and while some kids are very computer proficient, there are others that don't have access to the equipment. There will be learning at every stage and kids will be able to go on the vehicle, experiment with the different platforms and be part of the technology.

"There will be computer classes, coding classes and 3D printing workshops, so anyone, no matter their level of skills will be able to go on and actually have a real positive hands-on experience."

The Mobile Express, which can serve up to 24 participants or expand its interior walls to accommodate more, has an outdoor flat screen for dance sessions or for showing the instruction that is being held on the inside.

With its improved classroom flow and comfortable and engaging environment, the Mobile Express is able to offer English as a Second Language classes, workforce development classes, sewing workshops and pop-up library activities.

The mobile library and technology lab on wheels has no restrictions on its service area, so it can go into every neighborhood and corner of Houston and serve the public where it is needed the most.

"Every stop the Mobile Express makes is a continued investment into the Houston community," says Swanson. "A lot of people take for granted that everyone has equal access to online resources, but there's a lot of families that are having trouble making ends meet and they don't have internet in their home.

"The Houston Public Library has always been really good about finding creative and innovative ways of bringing services to the community."

For those that can't wait to make an appointment with the Mobile Express, there's always the neighborhood brick-and-mortar library.

"I welcome everyone in Houston to just go visit their local library," says Swanson. "They will be very surprised when they walk in and they see how many people are there reading or on computer terminals. They'll also be surprised by the library's focus on technology."

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2 COVID-19-focused research projects happening in Houston

research roundup

While it might seem like the COVID-19 pandemic has settled down for the time being, there's plenty of innovative research ongoing to create solutions for affordable vaccines and tech-enabled protection against the spread of the virus.

Some of that research is happening right here in Houston. Here are two innovative projects in the works at local institutions.

UH researcher designs app to monitor best times to shop

A UH professor is putting safe shopping at your fingertips. Photo via UH.edu

When is the best time to run an errand in the pandemic era we currently reside? There might be an app for that. Albert Cheng, professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston, is working on a real-time COVID-19 infection risk assessment and mitigation system. He presented his plans at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference HPC for Urgent Decision Making and will publish the work in IEEE Xplore.

Cheng's work analyzes up-to-date data from multiple open sources to see when is the best time to avoid crowds and accomplish activities outside the home.

"Preliminary work has been performed to determine the usability of a number of COVID-19 data websites and other websites such as grocery stores and restaurants' popular times and traffic," Cheng says in a UH release. "Other data, such as vaccination rates and cultural factors (for example, the percentage of people willing to wear facial coverings or masks in an area), are also used to determine the best grocery store to shop in within a time frame."

To use the app, a user would input their intended destinations and the farthest distance willing to go, as well as the time frame of the trip. The risk assessment and mitigation system, or RT-CIRAM, then "provides as output the target location and the time interval to reach there that would reduce the chance of infections," said Cheng.

There's a lot to it, says Cheng, and the process is highly reliant on technology.

"We are leveraging urgent high-performance cloud computing, coupled with time-critical scheduling and routing techniques, along with our expertise in real-time embedded systems and cyber-physical systems, machine learning, medical devices, real-time knowledge/rule-based decision systems, formal verification, functional reactive systems, virtualization and intrusion detection," says Cheng.

2 Houston hospitals team up with immunotherapy company for new vaccine for Africa

The new vaccine will hopefully help mitigate spread of the disease in Sub-Saharan Africa. Photo via bcm.edu

Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children's Hospital have teamed up with ImmunityBio Inc. — a clinical-stage immunotherapy company — under a licensing agreement to develop a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.

BCM has licensed out a recombinant protein COVID-19 vaccine candidate that was developed at the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to ImmunityBio. According to the release, the company engaged in license negotiations with the BCM Ventures team, about the vaccine that could address the current pandemic needs in South Africa.

"We hope that our COVID-19 vaccine for global health might become an important step towards advancing vaccine development capacity in South Africa, and ultimately for all of Sub-Saharan Africa," says Dr. Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor and co-director of the Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.

ImmunityBio, which was founded in 2014 by Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, is working on innovative immunotherapies that address serious unmet needs in infectious diseases, according to a news release from BCM.

"There is a great need for second-generation vaccines, which are accessible, durable and offer broad protection against the emerging variants," says Soon-Shiong. "ImmunityBio has executed on a heterologous ("mix-and-match") strategy to develop a universal COVID-19 vaccine. To accomplish this, we have embarked upon large-scale good manufacturing practices and development of DNA (adenovirus), RNA (self-amplifying mRNA) and subunit protein (yeast) vaccine platforms. This comprehensive approach will leverage our expertise in these platforms for both infectious disease and cancer therapies."

Elon Musk taps into Texas workforce for out-of-this-world bartender gig

DRINKING ON THE JOB

Can you mix a mean margarita? Are you capable of slinging a superb Aperol spritz? If so, Elon Musk wants you to become a "spaceport mixologist."

Musk's SpaceX, which builds and launches rockets, is hiring a "passionate, experienced" mixologist for its "spaceport" near Brownsville. The ideal candidate possesses at least two years of "superior" mixology experience at resorts, bars, and full-service restaurants, including the ability to pair drinks with themed menus.

Among other duties, the mixologist will prepare drinks, including handcrafted cocktails, and will ensure "consistency and compliance with the restaurant's recipes, portioning, and waste control guidelines."

The new mixologist will concoct alcoholic beverages for SpaceX's launch facility in Boca Chica, a Texas Gulf Coast community about 20 miles east of Brownsville. The job posting indicates the mixologist will work on the culinary team serving the SpaceX workforce.

According to Austin-based job website Indeed, the average mixologist in the U.S. earns $13.53 an hour. The SpaceX job posting doesn't list a salary, but you've got to imagine Musk — by far the richest person in Texas — would fork over more than $13.53 an hour for a spaceport mixologist.

By the way, in case you're not a master mixologist, SpaceX also is looking for a sous chef in Boca Chica. The sous chef will be tasked with cooking up menus that emphasize seasonal items and "creative" options. The chef's duties will include sourcing high-quality ingredients "with a focus on local, sustainable, and organic items."

Musk, who spends much of his time in Austin, is developing what the Bloomberg news service describes as an "empire" in Texas. Aside from the SpaceX facility, Musk-led Tesla is building a vehicle manufacturing plant just east of Austin and is moving its headquarters here. If that weren't enough, the Musk-founded Boring Co., which specializes in developing underground tunnels, lists 20 job openings in Austin on its website. In addition, SpaceX tests rocket engines at a site in McGregor, about 17 miles southwest of Waco.

"Texas has had its share of characters over the years, and many have been larger-than-life, wealthy risk-takers who came from elsewhere," Waco economist Ray Perryman tells Bloomberg. "There's still a wildcatting mentality here, and there's still a mystique about Texas that Elon Musk fits well."

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.