Hackergate Redux

A slew of articles hit today reporting on the release of another batch of emails from climate scientists stolen from the University of East Anglia in the U.K. (See stories from the BBC, New York Times, and TIME Magazine).  Most reports suggest they are from the same period as the last bunch that surfaced in late 2009 and led to a manufactured scandal quickly dubbed “Climategate” by climate skeptics. A series of investigations since that time have all exonerated the scientists of any wrongdoing (beyond some pettiness in their discourse). Meanwhile, the real-world data continues to paint an increasingly dire picture on emissions.

What’s interesting this time around is that the framing of the issue in the media is very different. In fact, it reflects the frame that should have applied the first time around, but didn’t. Articles today focus on the fact that whoever stole the emails committed a criminal act, that they remain at large, and that the investigation into the hack has been cursory, at best.  Articles today also question the timing of this new release of emails, occurring, as in 2009, in the weeks leading up to an important international climate meeting in Durban, South Africa.  Whoever is behind the hacks clearly seeks to disrupt and distract from the work that’ll take place in Durban and hijack the discourse, which is what happened to some degree at the Copenhagen climate talks in 2009.

It’s too bad today’s framing didn’t prevail in 2009.  Instead of “Climategate,” we should have had “Hackergate,” with the focus not on the normal exchange of emails among climate scientists, but on the who and why behind an illegal, sophisticated and extensive hacking attack. Makes you wonder where the dysfunctional national political dialogue on climate might be today if that had been the case.

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Water…Too much…Too little

I was struck yesterday with three stories I read on severe water stress in three different regions. The current Economist magazine runs a piece on dams and proposed dams on the Mekong river, highlighting how the riparian countries seem largely blind to the risks of damming a river for which climate change is likely to significantly reduce the flow. Meanwhile, here in California, the Los Angeles Times published a story on the high economic and energy costs of getting water to Southern California, much of which is carried from quite distant sources.  Climate change is making its impact felt there, too. Finally, the Houston Chronicle had a detailed look at Texas’ water future, finding no obvious future supply to meet anticipated demand, even with huge investments in hard infrastructure like new dams, wells, and the like.

On the flip side, I saw a short piece in the Bangkok Post today on a group of parliamentarians in Thailand putting forward a proposal to move the capital away from Bangkok because of the high flood risks there.

Too little water, too much water.  Consistent with climate change models.

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Flu Near You – DIY Surveillance

In addition to supporting the good work of others, we also aspire to identify areas where gaps exist in solutions to the threats we work on and create projects ourselves. Such is the case with Flu Near You. Developed in partnership with HealthMap and the American Public Health Association, Flu Near You is an effort to track the spread of flu on a national level, potentially unlocking hidden secrets about this viral mystery.

As a medical epidemiologist at Google.org, I had the pleasure of working with a team of Google engineers to answer a very specific question: “Can we find flu faster?” With Google Flu Trends, the engineers built a tool that finds flu up to two weeks earlier than the traditional sentinel laboratory-based system used in public health today. Researchers have demonstrated similar success looking at Yahoo search terms related to flu. While this two weeks advanced warning surprised some, we suspected that people would search the Internet for information about their symptoms before visiting a health care provider. This seems to be the case.

Many in public health are trying to explore the use of social networks – what you write on your “wall”, what you SMS each day – anything that might provide valuable information for even earlier warning of flu. Seems to me we may have been too timid to try what really matters:  simply asking people. Theoretically, the earliest sign of spread in a community could come from tracking the flu via self-reporting of symptoms.

Evidence suggests self-reported flu surveillance indeed works. Craig Dalton and colleagues, for example, successfully implemented FluTracking in 2004 with partners in Australia. Now tracking 10,000 people online every week, they have demonstrated vaccine efficacy and are providing guidance on addressing pockets of need in communities with high rates of self-reported illness. More importantly, they have retained – indeed, even grown – participation in the program through the simplicity of the system. Ten countries in Europe currently collaborate on Influenzanet, with thousands of online volunteers responding to a similar weekly survey via email.

Inspired by these early pioneers, we have engaged the APHA as the leading public health organization in the U.S. to build a pool of voluntary ‘sentinels’ of flu in the United States. We are asking volunteers to complete a short survey that takes 5-10 seconds once a week. Your shared data is anonymous and contributes to the Flu Near You platform, built by HealthMap.

The openly available data set can help everyone better understand flu, including policy makers, healthcare providers, researchers, educators and the public.  Reporting no symptoms of flu may prove as useful as reporting symptoms—hence the weekly survey.

With APHA’s help, we are putting the public into pubic health surveillance in a direct, active way.  We have asked APHA members to reach out through their social networks, engage with community partners, schools and workplaces, and share among their family and friends. We hope everyone will explore Flu Near You.

Faith Communities and Global Threats

One of the shorthands we use when looking at global threats here at the Skoll Global Threats Fund is that they are caused in part by “too many people living unconsciously.” We don’t work on the population side of that equation, but do believe raising public consciousness about the reality of global challenges like climate change, nuclear proliferation and other issues is critical. These threats all surface important equity and ethical issues. Those most affected by them don’t tend to cause them. The poor are disproportionally hit. Intergenerationally, we’re leaving our kids holding the bag on these issues.

Given this moral dimension, we see faith communities as potential allies in tackling these threats. Last week, several of us on the team participated in a workshop we helped support bringing leaders in the Catholic and evangelical communities together to talk about three issues:  climate change, nuclear proliferation and poverty.

Interesting takeaways included:

  • The church can and does have authenticity and a distinctive role in addressing these issues.
  • You need ongoing dialogue with faith communities on these issues.  “Rent a constituency” approaches around specific policy options rarely work.
  • You have to engage around individual responsibilities.  You need to integrate concerns on these global threats with touch-points that are already deeply engrained in individuals of faith (i.e., helping the poor).
  • You need to tell human stories.  One great quote from the meeting:  “Churches don’t do issues.  Churches do people.”
  • Understanding the moral or ethical dimensions of these issues makes people of faith more inclined to act on them.
  • Churches can arrive at the same policy position as, say, environmentalists on climate change, but often get there for different motivations, with different language.
  • There’s work to be done on the theology around many global threats.  Concepts of just war and poverty alleviation have long and deep theological underpinnings.  This isn’t yet true on emerging global threats (although concepts like stewardship and creation care are becoming more theologically robust).