Using technology to battle public health crises

Using technology to battle public health crises

 

The utility of social networks and crowd sourcing in disaster situations became clear in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan monsoon flooding, and again in 2011 when Japan was hit by a double earthquake-tsunami disaster. In response to the proven utility to help meet need aid groups intensified efforts integrate ICT tools into existing humanitarian systems to help mount faster disaster relief efforts.

And what if the humanitarian and medical communities can get ahead of an impending health disaster and mount a response before a major epidemic occurs? The creators behind Health Map may have found an answer.

“We were looking for a way to increase transparency and access to all this information that was floating out on the Internet in bits and pieces, and provide anyone – travellers, health care workers, humanitarian groups and governments – with information on emerging health or infectious disease threats.” says co-creator Dr. John Brownstein, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. “The map is one piece in a puzzle of emerging tools all working to change the speed and flow of information, and empower individuals.”

Health Map uses a web crawler to mine, sort and present real-time information on health and infectious disease conditions around the world. The tool covers everything from the H1N1 flu and dengue fever to famine in the Horn of Africa and polio outbreaks Health Map aggregates the information by disease and generates a global map displaying emerging incidents with data available in nine languages.

The site pulls information from individual users through social media like Twitter, government sites, media reports and medical personnel, as well as major organizational sources including the World Health Organization, the International Society for Infectious Diseases and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Over 100,000 people have downloaded Health Map’s mobile app, Outbreaks Near Me, which allows users to leverage global positioning tools to avoid potential dangers or use their smartphones to report incidents.

Internet giant Google, Inc. recently partnered with Health Map and the Centers for Disease Control to create Dengue Trends to act as an early warning system for health professionals working to combat the tropical disease which infects around 500 million people every year.

But there are still gaps in the Health Map system, and the creators do not see the tool as a replacement for existing government reporting systems but more as an evolution in the way public health concerns are addressed.

“Places without a strong media or widespread Internet access pose challenges in that while the information is good, the depth of reporting just isn’t there,” explains Dr. Brownstein.

Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are regions most affected by the lack of reporting and Health Map has turned to professional networks to try and fill the gaps.

 

Stakeholders from across the spectrum have expressed support for universal broadband, with the United Nations calling Internet access a human right. ICT tools enable individual users to raise their voices onto a global stage and in many countries with repressive governments increase their efforts to push for reforms. It also, says the United Nations, contributes to meeting poverty-reduction and other development goals.

 

Using ICT tools to address public health concerns is an area that has drawn the attention of major multinationals including Procter & Gamble, AT&T and Verizon, and funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the United Stated Agency for International Development. Mobile health – or mHealth, which uses cellular telephones and other ICT tools to provide health care, can help medical professionals and their patients overcome barriers created by infrastructure, access and economics.

 

“Academia, NGOs and the for-profit sectors all see the huge opportunities in developing technology and mobile health applications,” says Dr. Brownstein. “Ideally eventually all the tools we’ve developed so far will simply become obsolete.”

 

India Internet law draws fire

Indian Internet users have begun to discover the limits imposed by a new law on web content, encountering interruptions in their surfing in the form of screens displaying a message that content has been blocked under instruction from the Ministry of Telecom.

Human rights activists, bloggers and Internet users are lashing out at the new on the grounds that its provisions constitute infringements on the rights to privacy, free speech and expression. Indian authorities have characterized the new law as a balance between individual freedoms and collective security, but critics say the restrictive provisions rival Chinese attempts to censor web access.

Click here for the story.

 

India Internet law draws fire

Indian Internet users have begun to discover the limits imposed by a new law on web content, encountering interruptions in their surfing in the form of screens displaying a message that content has been blocked under instruction from the Ministry of Telecom.

 

Human rights activists, bloggers and Internet users are lashing out at the new on the grounds that its provisions constitute infringements on the rights to privacy, free speech and expression. Indian authorities have characterized the new law as a balance between individual freedoms and collective security, but critics say the restrictive provisions rival Chinese attempts to censor web access.

Click here for the story.

 

Better get Grandma on Facebook

My mother will not get on Facebook.

 

I have enticed her with pictures of the children. I’ve told her how she could communicate with friends more easily. I’ve explained how she could link up with the activist community she was long a part of. I know she would like all of these things, but she will not get online. I’ve given up trying. My mom is only 59.

But though she is not even a senior by our society’s definition, she still is in many ways of another era.

She still watches the evening news and gets a newspaper. Her world and mine are very different to be sure.

That’s not to say that it is entirely bad that she refuses to enter the online world in any significant way. Trust meI can understand the appeal. Though I will admit it is the same kind of appeal horse back riding probably held for Model T owners.

My mother is not alone. Many Americans her age and older remain off line. Only 40% of seniors go online at all according to a new study.

This, despite the huge benefits to seniors of going online. Indeed people in retirement might benefit the most from online engagement. For those who are immobile the positives are huge.

Yet, seniors have not embraced the online life, despite the fact that the PC is over 30 years old.

This intransigence toward technology has important implications politically.

Someone for whom going online and online life is not important may vote in a very different way from those who are more tapped into the day to day flow of information. As I said, my mother and many of her generation still get their news from the “approved” media outlets.

Considering that those over 60 are much more likely to vote in elections than younger people this impacts politics greatly.

People who are online and live much of their life online are used to choices. They are used to the dynamism of information. If a video is good, we vote it up on Youtube. If a story is bad, we vote it down on Digg. There is a constant ebb and flow that contrasts starkly with the more static information flow of only a few years ago.

This is a radically different world view from the older generation which has been told their whole lives to believe what they are told.

 But though my mother might not vote a funny cat video up, she is likely to vote for the next president, which is infinitely more important. For all the smugness that may emanate from those tapping away on their smart phones, the reality is that people similar to my mother will determine a good part of America’s future for the next 20 years.

 We had better get them on Facebook.

 

NS 8-17-2011

The Establishment Strikes Back (at social media)

For every revolution there is an effort at a counter revolution. We see examples of authorities pushing back against the digital revolution nearly everywhere.

 

From liberal San Francisco, where authorities recently turned off cell phone service to BART (transit rail) stations in an effort to thwart the coordinated efforts of protestors, to Conservative UK Prime Minister Cameron calling for increased restrictions on social media in the wake of last week’s riots, the gate keepers are doing their best to keep the gates locked.

In places such as Egypt where the first rays of sunlight have begun to shine in, the military is flexing it’s muscles again. Blogger, Asmaa Mahfuz, a leader in the spring revolts was recently detained because of a perceived insult to the Army that was posted on her Twitter account. She has been released on bail but the message has been sent.

Around the world the powers that be are growing increasingly worried that their positions of power are under threat from a digitally empowered group of (mostly) young people. The old rules are falling by the wayside and the establishment is unhappy about it. The peasants it seems now have too much power.

What is even more annoying for the establishment is that the peasants seem to be better at leveraging information for their causes than the establishment is. Propaganda is to be handed down from on high, information is not supposed to percolate, it is to be blessed. Too much information is dangerous we are told.

It is- for them.

We will continue to see more and more push back from authorities in the days, weeks, months, and years to come. The Church despised the printing press. It should not surprise us that today’s power brokers hold a similar contempt for the digital revolution.