Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Medical App From Burlington Debuts in Bangladesh

Posted By on Tue, Apr 14, 2015 at 11:06 AM

Pediatrician Barry Finette examines a child at a clinic in Togo. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF DR. BARRY FINETTE
  • File photo courtesy of Dr. Barry Finette
  • Pediatrician Barry Finette examines a child at a clinic in Togo.
A medical mobile app designed to save the lives of children with potentially life-threatening medical conditions has begun its first phase of field testing, in Bangladesh, and is already showing very encouraging results.

As Seven Days reported in its March 4 story, "Pocket Pediatrics: A Vermont-Made App That Could Save Kids' Lives," pediatricians at the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington worked with Vermont software designers to build an app. It enables frontline health care workers to determine the severity of a child's ailment and then provide immediate treatment recommendations. The app, called MEDSINC — short for Medical Evaluation and Diagnostic System for Infants, Newborns and Children — has the potential to save millions of lives each year in low- and middle-income countries that often lack medical staff with pediatric expertise.

Dr. Barry Finette is the Burlington pediatrician, pediatrics professor and director of UVM's Global Health and Humanitarian Opportunity Program who first conceived of the idea after years of working in developing countries where pediatricians are virtually nonexistent. Finette reported Tuesday that MEDSINC's rollout, at two field clinics in the Mirpur region of Dhaka, received enthusiastic responses from medical teams with the International Center for Diarrheal Disease Research and their Bangadeshi health care partners, all of whom are eager to continue with future testing. 

"As anticipated, some community health workers experienced challenges in collecting accurate physical exam findings," Finette writes in a monthly newsletter for THINKmd, the Burlington-based benefit corporation formed to launch this and other humanitarian aid-oriented apps. "However, with a little training, they were able to capture accurate data."

According to Finette, health workers on the ground in Bangladesh identified areas in MEDSINC’s user interface that were somewhat difficult to understand and also supplied his team with several helpful suggestions for improvements. Those suggestions are being incorporated into the product.

"Our near-term goal for MEDSINC is to continue with field testing at several different locations," Finette adds. "We are currently finalizing plans with key collaborators in Central and South America, where we hope to conduct MEDSINC field tests soon."

Finette had even more good news to report today: THINKmd has been selected as a finalist for the LaunchVT business pitch competition. The first prize for LaunchVT is $30,000 in cash and $45,000 of in-kind support.

"We are excited for the opportunity," Finette writes in an email, "and look forward to hearing feedback from the audience about our company and MEDSINC venture.” Winners of the LaunchVT business pitch competition will be announced on May 7.

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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Regulators Ask PSB to Investigate FairPoint After 911 Outage

Posted By on Tue, Dec 2, 2014 at 12:40 PM

Striking FairPoint Communications workers rally in Montpelier last month. - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Striking FairPoint Communications workers rally in Montpelier last month.
Updated at 1:45 p.m. to include FairPoint statement.

Days after a statewide 911 outage, the Vermont Department of Public Service has asked the Vermont Public Service Board to investigate the "adequacy,' of FairPoint Communications' service, following through on a previously issued threat to the struggling company.

The DPS said it had long planned to pursue action if customer complaints about FairPoint's service, which have spiked in recent months, did not subside by the end of November. Last Friday's phone outage, during which 45 calls to 911 did not go through, only heightened the concern, the agency said.

"The number of complaints we have received regarding FairPoint service outages and length of time for repair has remained unacceptably high for too many months, and spiked precipitously in the last two months,” Public Service Commissioner Christopher Recchia said in a prepared statement. “Last Friday's network outage, which resulted in Vermonters’ inability to reach 911 for a period of 5-1/2 hours, endangered public safety and welfare."

The DPS said that, while it can seek financial penalties against FairPoint if the PSB finds wrongdoing, its "primary purpose" in filing the petition is to determine the root cause of outages and delays in repair, and to find a solution. The PSB, comprised of three members appointed by the governor, is a quasi-judicial body that presides over a range of issues related to utilities, telecommunications, cable television, electric, gas and water service.

FairPoint has pledged to cooperate with a PSB inquiry.

"We have received the Department's request for the board to open a service quality investigation. If the board opens an investigation, we will fully cooperate with them," the company said.

Roughly 1,700 FairPoint workers, including 370 in Vermont, went on strike on October 17 after negotiations broke down over issues including a pension freeze, eliminating health insurance for retirees and requiring workers to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

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Monday, November 3, 2014

Public Service Board Approves Burlington Telecom Settlement

Posted By on Mon, Nov 3, 2014 at 7:42 PM

The Public Service Board listens to testimony on Burlington Telecom last summer. - KEVIN KELLEY
  • Kevin Kelley
  • The Public Service Board listens to testimony on Burlington Telecom last summer.
Burlington is free to sell Burlington Telecom to ferry magnate Trey Pecor, the Vermont Public Service Board decided Monday evening. The decision clears the way for the city to resolve a longstanding legal battle related to the telecom company.

Last March, Mayor Miro Weinberger announced that his administration had reached a settlement agreement with Citibank, which had sued Burlington for $33.5 million. Since then, Burlington has been waiting for the three-member board to either approve or reject the terms of the deal.

During the intervening months, a group of local activists has urged the city to retain ownership of the telecommunications and cable company. The group made their case before the Public Service Board. 

Under the agreement, Burlington will pay Citibank $9 million — two-thirds of which will come from selling Burlington Telecom to Blue Water, a limited liability corporation created by Pecor, owner of the Lake Champlain ferry system. Pecor will lease the BT infrastructure back to the city and the company will eventually be sold to another entity, with profits divided between Pecor and city. 

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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

City Attorney Says Uber is Breaking the Law in Burlington

Posted By on Wed, Oct 22, 2014 at 2:13 PM

  • File photo
Uber is operating illegally in Burlington, according to city attorney Eileen Blackwood. In a letter sent to the smartphone-based car service, which launched here two weeks ago, Blackwood wrote that Uber cars qualify as "vehicles for hire," meaning they need city-issued licenses.

Uber relies on individuals who sign up to be drivers using their own cars, and it describes itself as a technology company, not a taxi company. According to Blackwood, neither Uber nor its drivers have sought licenses from the city, which means they are breaking the law. 

Uber responded to a request for comment with the following statement: "Since our launch in Burlington, riders and drivers have embraced the added choice and economic opportunity with open arms. We look forward to continuing productive conversations with local officials, working together on a temporary agreement and moving towards a permanent solution for ride-sharing in Burlington." Spokesperson Kaitlin Durkosh declined say whether they plan to continue to operate in the meantime. 

The mayor met with two Uber officials on the morning the company launched in Burlington. Afterward, both parties said they were looking forward to updating the city's taxi ordinance to better accommodate companies like Uber. At that time, the city attorney was still determining whether companies like Uber fell under the city's taxi ordinance.  Blackwood's letter leaves the door open for this discussion: "Mayor Weinberger is willing to explore with Uber whether changes to modernize the ordinance are warranted and can be crafted in such a way that the public is fully protected and that Uber can offer its service to Burlingtonians."

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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Burlington Telecom Deal Faces State Scrutiny

Posted By on Wed, Jul 23, 2014 at 12:29 PM

Burlington Chief Administrative Officer Bob Rusten testifies Tuesday at the state Public Service Board. - KEVIN J. KELLEY
  • Kevin J. Kelley
  • Burlington Chief Administrative Officer Bob Rusten testifies Tuesday at the state Public Service Board.
Aggressive questioning by state regulators on Tuesday revealed that Burlington officials did not try to determine the market value of the city-owned telecommunications network prior to agreeing to sell it to a local businessman for $6 million.

Burlington Chief Administrative Officer Bob Rusten acknowledged that the city had not consulted investment bankers, independent appraisers or bond underwriters in order to calculate how much Burlington Telecom might be worth. Rusten did not explain why such evaluations were not carried out.

The $6 million deal with Trey Pecor, owner of the Lake Champlain ferry system and a contributor to Mayor Miro Weinberger's political campaigns, is the linchpin in a pending settlement with Citibank intended to lighten the load of the BT albatross. Citibank agreed in February to accept $10.5 million to settle a $33.5 million suit it had brought against Burlington five years earlier. The bank had argued in federal court that the essentially insolvent telecom enterprise should be required either to return equipment it had leased from Citi or cover the claimed value of that property.

Although Pecor would become the de facto owner of BT, the utility's operations would be leased back to the city under the terms of the proposed deal. Burlington would in turn continue to cede day-to-day decision-making authority over BT to the Dorman and Fawcett financial advisory firm. The Citi settlement also calls for Burlington to seek another buyer for BT in the coming years, with Pecor, the city and the bank getting varying shares of the proceeds of an eventual purchase by another party.

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Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Leahy Swoops into Burlington for a Net Neutrality Hearing

Posted By on Wed, Jul 2, 2014 at 1:54 PM

  • Illustration by Matt Morris
Dark-suited aides flanked the crowd at the University of Vermont’s Davis Center on Tuesday afternoon, and people scattered through the room waved posters reading “Save Our Internet.”

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) faced a panel of witnesses lined up to talk about the internet at a field hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The topic, specifically: “Preserving an Open Internet: Rules to Promote Competition and Protect Main Street Consumers.”

Ever since John Oliver begged people to care about net neutrality on late-night TV last month, the American public has obliged — at least, judging from the YouTube video, which has more than 4 million views. 

Leahy, too, has apparently obliged. On June 17th, he and Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) introduced the bicameral Online Competition and Consumer Choice Act.

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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Burlington Telecom Deal Could Be Big Win for Weinberger — And for Taxpayers?

Posted By on Tue, Feb 4, 2014 at 10:13 AM


The administration of Mayor Miro Weinberger appears to have negotiated a good deal for the city in the proposed $10.5 million settlement of Citibank's $33.5 million lawsuit over troubles at Burlington Telecom.

While the settlement would pay off the city-owned utility's debt to Citibank, it does not immediately reimburse taxpayers for an additional $16.9 million improperly spent by BT — although Weinberger said in announcing the deal Monday that it could eventually lead to at least partial reimbursement.

And the settlement may eventually come at the price of ceding control of the city-owned utility to private interests, as well as requiring taxpayers to cover at least a portion of the $1.3 million city contribution to the settlement.

The plan unveiled Monday will likely lead to the city ceding majority ownership to an outside partner or partners  within four years, Weinberger said. While corporate interests would be most likely to have the necessary cash, the local group working to form a telecom co-op could conceivably emerge as the new owner, Weinberger said.

Alan Matson, a leader of the co-op effort, said in an interview that his group will seek to “seize this opportunity” to keep BT in local hands and under democratic control. But the fledgling co-op, which has so far raised less than $300,000 from supporters, will have to achieve a stunning financial breakthrough in order to come up with the $6 million “bridge loan” the city needs to pay off part of its debt to Citibank. 

Weinberger said at the news conference that “investment banks” would be the likeliest source of the bridge financing. 

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Saturday, February 1, 2014

J. Craig Venter, Pioneering Genome Scientist, to Speak at Norwich University

Posted By on Sat, Feb 1, 2014 at 4:03 PM

2011 photo of J. Craig Venter from Wikimedia Commons

For J. Craig Venter, the sky isn't the limit, but Mars might be. The 67-year-old biologist and entrepeneur first mapped the human genome in the late 1990s using a technique he invented and called "shotgun sequencing." A decade later, in 2010, one of his organizations, Synthetic Genomics, became the first to develop "synthetic life," essentially fabricating a strand of DNA that contained the entire genome of a bacteria cell. 

Now, as Venter writes about in his new book, Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life, his organization is researching potential applications for the fledgling field of synthetic biology. They range from straightforward to totally outlandish: crafting better vaccines or more efficient sources of nutrition; cleaning water and air; and equipping NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover with DNA-sequencing techology that could digitally map Martian genomes and beam them back to Earth for re-creation in labs. 

It wouldn't be the first time Venter has looked beyond Earth to solve our scientific riddles. For the last six years, he and other scientists have crisscrossed 80,000 miles of sea in his private yacht, the Sorcerer II. That project, known as the Global Ocean Sampling Expedition, has led to the discovery of hundreds of new species of microbes, as well as millions of genetic base pairs and a couple thousand new families of proteins.

Venter will speak about his new book at Norwich University on Monday, February 3 (details below). In advance of that lecture, we spoke with him by phone about a few of his accomplishments, as well the state of science in the U.S.

SEVEN DAYS: Since developing the first synthetic cell in 2010, you’ve said that a “vision is being borne out” for how this technology can help us create better vaccines, biofuels, cleaner water, more abundant sources of food, etc. Where do you see that vision being borne out now, and what are some developments we could feasibly see in the next five years?


J. CRAIG VENTER: Well, those are all areas that we’re actively working in at Synthetic Genomics, and it’s not clear yet where the fastest applications will be. But I think the vaccine area might be one of them, certainly based on immediate needs. New flu strains are emerging in China and other places, and the number of deaths from flu are starting to mount in the U.S., so I think it’s all very critical for new developments.


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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Burlington's 'Civic Cloud' Wins $35K Grant From the Knight Foundation

Posted By on Wed, Jan 22, 2014 at 8:47 PM


Earlier this month, dubbed Burlington one of the most promising tech hubs to watch in 2014; today, an innovative coalition of Vermont groups calling itself the Civic Cloud Collaborative demonstrated why. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced today that it's awarding the Collaborative a $35,000 grant from its Prototype Fund.

The coalition will use the funding to develop an online space — a so-called “Civic Cloud” — for community-minded, nonprofit entities to expand their digital footprint. Members of the Collaborative include the civic-hacking group Code for BTV, the public-access television station CCTV Center for Media and Democracy and the web-based music platform Big Heavy World

In an email to Seven Days, Big Heavy World executive director James Lockridge explained that the Civic Cloud is essentially "an internet makerspace."

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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

This Week's Issue: Union Drives, Big-Money Developers and a Long Time in the Clink

Posted By on Wed, Nov 20, 2013 at 5:17 PM


Another week, another Wednesday, another Seven Days. Here's this week's lineup of news and politics stories:

Pick up this issue in print, online or on the iOS app.

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