Five Questions With: Robert Blackburn

Gartner, a global research firm, has reported that emergency-room visits in the United States will be reduced by 20 million by 2023 due to artificial intelligence, or AI, health care.

Boston’s WBZ-TV recently featured a news segment on such technology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital that’s designed to manage high blood pressure. This software – which can also be used for conditions such as high cholesterol – was built by Blackburn Labs in Providence. Robert Blackburn is the company’s owner. 

PBN: Blackburn Labs makes software for education, real estate, gaming … but do health care applications carry a different sense of reward?

BLACKBURN: Often health care software does have a direct and powerful reward. Whether extending lives or saving them, it’s rare for a software engineer to be able to so clearly see the benefits of their work. However … there have been plenty of cases where the reward for the other types of software was comparable.

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The work we did for [Boston’s] FableVision a few years back comes to mind. That was educational software designed to help kids improve their reading and writing skills. As I am dyslexic, this had a very personally relevant reward.

In real estate, it can be very rewarding to be a part of a family finding their dream home. Each industry has their own special reward, as long as you’re ready and open to building something special.

PBN: Tell us about the virtual-care software Blackburn Labs built for Brigham and Women’s Hospital. How did that collaboration originate?

BLACKBURN: Blackburn Labs was brought into that project when the BWH team had pushed the envelope of what they could do using MS Excel and MS Access tools. They knew they needed to bring in a developer to build some custom software if they wanted the program to move to the next level. It was such a great experience for us, working with such altruistic, smart and motived people.

PBN: Did BWH’S AI-enhanced, virtual-care software development present any particular challenges for Blackburn Labs?

BLACKBURN: Oh, for sure. This app contained some very complex algorithms that we developed as a team. Harnessing the brilliance of some of the nation’s leading cardiologists to create the complex algorithms was a unique and particularly rewarding challenge.

Keep in mind, those were clinical algorithms, so the algorithms needed to be extremely reliable. Patient safety is foremost. Combine that with all the complexities that come with any health care software, such as [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] compliance, and you can probably imagine how intense it was. It’s one of the reasons I am particularly proud of the work we did there.

PBN: Your website mentions real estate as one of the industries your company serves and says property professionals face great pressure to compete in this age of technology. How so?

BLACKBURN: This is a great question, and one we spend a great deal of time talking about ourselves. Technology is definitely having an impact on real estate. In fact, many of the larger markets such as Los Angeles and New York City are already seeing technology taking a new, more prominent seat with Realtors. It will continue to reshape the industry for the foreseeable future.

As millennials take a greater role in buying and selling houses, the barrier to new technology in real estate will be greatly reduced. This is the generation that grows up with Uber and Airbnb, after all. The idea of giving access to their homes to strangers, with nothing more than a keyless lock and wireless camera, without the presence or assistance of a Realtor, will not be nearly as intimidating to this generation. Realtors will need to bring new tools to the table to heighten and evolve the experience. In fact, Blackburn Labs has a number of tools we bring to our clients – and [we] have more in the works.

PBN: You provide consulting for companies on software and mobile apps. What is some advice you find yourself doling out most?

BLACKBURN: I find that it’s a common mistake to think a software project is a single, big effort to deliver a product. The most important thing for any software project – be it for a small startup or a Fortune 500 company – is to set your sights on small deliverables and adjust as you learn. The industry term for this is to build an MVP (minimum viable product). There are plenty of books on this topic, such as “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries. There are also common project-management practices within software development that embrace this incremental-delivery mindset, such as Agile or Scrum.

Your software team should be familiar with these techniques. If not, Tech Collective often hosts trainings and certifications on these topics. I suggest taking advantage of that. In short, don’t try to build some huge, monolithic project to deliver the perfect software as the first deliverable. Define the smallest possible deliverable, build that, then review and adjust before refining and improving upon your software. Not only will you end up with a better, more stable product, but you’ll spend much less building it.

Susan Shalhoub is a PBN contributing writer.