Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Pandemics, Science and New Media

For the better part of a decade jurisdictions large and small have dedicated a great deal of time and money transforming their emergency response and public health preparedness plans from an era of polio and nuclear fallout shelters into something more in-step with a post-9/11, post SARS world. When updating anything for the 21st century communications technology is a vital pillar.

A huge lesson from September 11, 2001: despite the fact that I could pick up my celphone and call my cousin in Ireland on his celphone yet catch him in Spain on a golf holiday; New York City Police and Fire Departments couldn't communicate with each other from few metres away.

During the SARS outbreak of 2003 the teleconference was the main means of briefings and information dissemination. According to "Lessons from SARS" from the Public Health Agency of Canada, this meant that top people were either being tied up on endless calls or simply not being able to attend: "...this led to the Kafkaesque situation where calls involved discussion among regions that were unaffected". It was agreed that the "efficiency of communication" needed to be vastly improved: "...there was clear scope for better coordination of how scientists communicated with decision makers and the public."

Years later, there are new communication apps readily available that neither the 9/11 or SARS responders would have thought of as basic tools.

A big trend accelerated in part by SARS and, undoubtedly, the current swine flu outbreak, is the fact that more medical research is bypassing the traditional, (a.k.a. slow), paper-journal peer review process into a more streamlined on-line version via websites like Nature.com, "The World's Best Science on Your Doorstep", and PLoS. In this article from back in 2006 Nature was already touting that:

"Online tools can be used to improve the accuracy, transparency and usefulness of the scientific literature by moving away from the traditional emphasis on closed peer review."

They have a section of their site dedicted to explaining and debating the pros and cons of this new wave of peer review.

This change provides more up-to-date information for traditonal media to write about, (which in turn gives armachir bloggers more to write about !), and traditional media has changed a lot in the last few years as well.

Today, most newpapers of note offer their content for free and use 'breaking news' sections to continually update their web versions with written, audio or video content. In many cases it can be a hybrid of the three - see the Free Press' Cover It Live and Mogulus features.

The blog, which may be becoming the respectable, middle-aged father figure, (who still likes to let loose every once in a while), of new media is linked-in with traditional media thanks in part to last year's U.S. election campaign. (Was that really only last year ?!). A noticeable tip of the hat toward blogs came from the New York Times which created a sub-site to track and link to blog posts from across the world for readers to mull over. (That site seems to have morephed into "The Caucus").

Some mainstream media have science or health writers but their connection to blogs has allowed them to access additional, meaningful content. CBC.ca's Citizen Bytes for example, has an interesting post from a UBC medical reasercher who happens to be working in Mexico City right now. The Wall Street Journal's health blog section had someone live-blogging the CDC's April 29 swine flu conference call.

What about the newest of technologies ? (To see the numbers on swine flu searches on assorted new media platforms see this post from TechCruch.)

The web-based Health Map is doing it's usual great job of linking maps and news stories to track the swine flu outbreak. There are a few imitators on Google Maps.

Facebook now has over 500 Swine Flu pages ranging in size from one "fan" to over 3,000. The information provided is questionable. Though some people are posting the latest in news, stats and information there are as many conspiracy theorists and post such as: "i was listening to some guy on the radio say this is just some government-backed mass panic strategy to get people to spend money on products and meds"

A search of terms like "Disease Control" and "Public Health" show that no major organizations appear to have chosen Facebook to provide information, (though the BC Centre for Disease Control has a page for their ImmunizeBC program with 50 fans !)

The newest kid on the block, of course, is Twitter.

Earlier in April a New York Times story looked at Twitter and its potential to get important information out quickly. Evan Williams, a Twitter co-founder, told the Times:

Twitter lets people know what’s going on about things they care about instantly, as it happens. In the best cases, Twitter makes people smarter and faster and more efficient.

So far, that does not seem to be the case.

Yes, the CDC is using Twitter to send notices about alerts and info on the next press briefing. The Columbia School of Journalism is also tweeting and offering blog advice on how to use the tool to effectively report on the swine flu outbreak.

Much of the reaction however, has been negative.

Evgeny Morozov who blogs net.effect for Foreign Policy is not impressed. In Twitter's Power to Misinform he states:

"Twitter seems to have introduced too much noise into the process." and "... in the context of a global pandemic -- where media networks are doing their best to spice up an already serious threat -- having millions of people wrap up all their fears into 140 characters and blurt them out in the public might have some dangerous consequences, networked panic being one of them."

Brennon Slattery of PC World magazine told the UK's Telegraph :

"This is a good example of why [Twitter is] headed in that wrong direction, because it's just propagating fear amongst people as opposed to seeking actual solutions or key information. The swine flu thing came really at the crux of a media revolution."

Also, TG Daily has a good post, The Twitter Pandemic: Swine flu defines social media’s new age, about Twitter and its, perhaps, righful place in the future of communications.

(As a Twitter aside, according to Neilsen 60% of Twitters don't , um, twit /tweet after the first month).

We have the technology, and it is improving all the time, to communicate to the remotest places on the globe and beyond. (Actually, Canada's Scientific Director of the National Microbiology Laboratory found out about the outbreak via his Blackberry while at a hockey game - how Canadian is that !). As new applications are created to distribute the information are we actually distributing knowledge or just a bunch of twitter ?

I will be very interested to read the inevitable "Lessons from Swine Flu" reports that should be due out in a year or so to see how our new apps and media are graded.

1 comment:

Fat Arse said...

Excellent post.

The reliability of communications networks is too often taken for granted. The real problem is that their efficacy and ability to convey "useful" info is offset by their perverse capacity to inundate us with flotsam and jetsam. You are absolutely right, the new "Lessons Learned" manual will be telling about whether or not all these new-fangled techno advances are really worth a damn.