Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The varying definitions of "real-time"

Each of us may say that a particular event occurs in "real-time." However, the meaning of that term can vary by the person, and by who is speaking.

I'll give you an example from my biometrics background. Back in the 1990s, my employer was known as an automated fingerprint identification systems company. I was working in proposals back then, and we'd often talk about our "real-time" technology that allowed searches to come back in just minutes, rather than taking hours or days. Despite what television may show you, fingerprint matching can be a complex process, and the ability at the time to measure searches in minutes rather than hours was something that was revolutionary.

But then our company acquired several other companies and/or divisions, including a CAD company. Now when I refer to "CAD," I'm talking about computer-aided dispatch, or a system which assigns police, fire, or ambulance personnel to a particular location in response to a particular need.

I can't imagine what our new co-workers were thinking when we ran around talking about responses in minutes. If CAD systems took minutes to respond, people would die.

Of course, there are often speed improvements which allow you to do things more quickly, and one of those improvements has been claimed for DNA analysis. Again, if you see a TV show in which a forensic analyst gets DNA results back in a few seconds, treat it as science fiction. Even if you ignore the fact that many DNA labs have huge backlogs, it takes time to analyze the DNA samples and reach conclusions.

According to Forensic Magazine, someone has reduced this analysis time:

A new system developed by researchers from the Forensic Science Service uses an instrument loaded with a DNA processing cartridge to speed the DNA analysis. Using this system, the entire process from taking the sample from a suspect, to database compatible DNA profile production can be achieved in less than 4 hours.

However, this is only part of the equation:

"If the full impact of these new technologies is to be gained, the rapid delivery of chemistry must be supported by a capability to submit and compare the DNA profile in near real time. Currently neither the CODIS database, nor the UK National DNA database have the capability to support rapid chemistry protocols."

Whenever you decide to speed up a process, you need to look at all of the steps in the process. Once I was looking at a particular process, and identified a modification to a particular step which would result in a drastic reduction in time...for that particular step. However, the net effect on the overall process was negligible.

P.S. You'll want to stay tuned to this blog today. In about twelve hours you'll see a (previously scheduled) post that talks about the possibility of my changing my personal workflow so that items from various feeds, rather than going to FriendFeed BEFORE going to Facebook, would instead go directly to Facebook. For the record this (previously scheduled) post was primarily written BEFORE FriendFeed went down on Monday evening.
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