Our President, Larry Brilliant, recently spoke at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Celebration of American Philanthropy event. Larry was one of several philanthropic leaders talking about “big bets” philanthropy can make to tackle today’s challenges. His big bet – “ending pandemics in our lifetime.”
Our Climate Director, Amy Luers, is a Bellagio PopTech Fellow this year. She participated in the PopTech conference last week, and has been working with the other Bellgio PopTech Fellows (photo below, Amy’s 2nd from left) on the question of how big data can be used effectively – and ethically – to promote community resilience. They’ve published a white paper, “Big Data, Communities and Ethical Resilience: A Framework for Action,” that you can download here. You can read a PopTech blog about the paper here.
We’re co-hosting a conference starting today in San Francisco on digital disease detection. HealthMap (at Boston Children’s Hospital) is our co-host, and University of San Francisco is graciously providing the space. For those new to the issue, digital disease detection refers to the use of digital sources, web searches, and other technology to surface early signals of disease outbreaks and improve the ability to stop the spread of contagious diseases. (Our Flu Near You project is one example of this.) The conference will be bringing together leaders in technology and public health to explore how new tools can help tackle infectious disease. You can see the agenda and list of speakers here.
Today will kick off with keynotes from execs from Facebook and Quid, followed by a series of rapid fire talks on different technologies and how they’re being applied to disease detection. All of these will be available via a live stream here starting at 1:00 pm. The rapid fire talks with continue tomorrow morning at 9:00 am, also live streamed at the same URL. Folks will be tweeting from the event with a #DigDisTech hash tag.
It should be a really interesting event, so we hope you can watch!
This was originally published by our Climate Change Director, Amy Luers, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review here.
Big data—the massive data sets that we collect and analyze to help understand complex systems, and that we mine to reveal trends in new ways and at a scale and speed often impossible even a decade ago—is all the rage. It has transformed how we conduct science, business, public health, and humanitarian efforts.
So can big data help local communities, cities, and nations cope with the disruptions and inevitable surprises from climate change? This is the question I explored while participating in the Bellagio/Poptech Fellows retreat sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation. Big data has transformed scientists’ ability to understand the climate system and develop plausible scenarios of the future. However, while those roles are important, ultimately society’s ability to cope with climate change will depend less on the accuracy of these projections and more on the level of “resilience derived from bottom-up community efforts.”
The answer to whether big data can help communities build resilience to climate change is yes—there are huge opportunities, but there are also risks.
Feedback: Strong negative feedback is core to resilience. A simple example is our body’s response to heat stress—sweating, which is a natural feedback to cool down our body. In social systems, feedbacks are also critical for maintaining functions under stress. For example, communication by affected communities after a hurricane provides feedback for how and where organizations and individuals can provide help. While this kind of feedback used to rely completely on traditional communication channels, now crowdsourcing and data mining projects, such as Ushahidi and Twitter Earthquake detector, enable faster and more-targeted relief.
Diversity: Big data is enhancing diversity in a number of ways. Consider public health systems. Health officials are increasingly relying on digital detection methods, such as Google Flu Trends or Flu Near You, to augment and diversify traditional disease surveillance.
Self-Organization: A central characteristic of resilient communities is the ability to self-organize. This characteristic must exist within a community (see the National Research Council Resilience Report), not something you can impose on it. However, social media and related data-mining tools (InfoAmazonia, Healthmap) can enhance situational awareness and facilitate collective action by helping people identify others with common interests, communicate with them, and coordinate efforts.
Eroding trust: Trust is well established as a core feature of community resilience. Yet the NSA PRISM escapade made it clear that big data projects are raising privacy concerns and possibly eroding trust. And it is not just an issue in government. For example, Target analyzes shopping patterns and can fairly accurately guess if someone in your family is pregnant (which is awkward if they know your daughter is pregnant before you do). When our trust in government, business, and communities weakens, it can decrease a society’s resilience to climate stress.
Mistaking correlation for causation: Data mining seeks meaning in patterns that are completely independent of theory (suggesting to some that theory is dead). This approach can lead to erroneous conclusions when correlation is mistakenly taken for causation. For example, one study demonstrated that data mining techniques could show a strong (however spurious) correlation between the changes in the S&P 500 stock index and butter production in Bangladesh. While interesting, a decision support system based on this correlation would likely prove misleading.
Failing to see the big picture: One of the biggest challenges with big data mining for building climate resilience is its overemphasis on the hyper-local and hyper-now. While this hyper-local, hyper-now information may be critical for business decisions, without a broader understanding of the longer-term and more-systemic dynamism of social and biophysical systems, big data provides no ability to understand future trends or anticipate vulnerabilities. We must not let our obsession with the here and now divert us from slower-changing variables such as declining groundwater, loss of biodiversity, and melting ice caps—all of which may silently define our future. A related challenge is the fact that big data mining tends to overlook the most vulnerable populations. We must not let the lure of the big data microscope on the “well-to-do” populations of the world make us blind to the less well of populations within cities and communities that have more limited access to smart phones and the Internet.
The big data revolution is upon us. How this will contribute to the resilience of human and natural systems remains to be seen. Ultimately, it will depend on what trade-offs we are willing to make. For example, are we willing to compromise some individual privacy for increased community resilience, or the ecological systems on which they depend?—If so, how much, and under what circumstances?
From Appropriate Technology to Appropriate Big Data
The opportunities and risks around big data for climate resilience reminds me of the dormant “Appropriate Technology Movement,” brought to prominence with Schumacher’s influential book Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. In the face of rapid technological growth, the appropriate technology movement promoted small-scale, decentralized, locally controlled and people centered technologies. Is it time for an “appropriate big data movement”—one that considers the needs of communities, captures the broader context in which they exist, and pushes society to confront the trade-offs in the decisions (or non-decisions) we are making?
After three days of designing and hacking, the digital disease surveillance hack-a-thon we’ve been sponsoring in Cambodia, EpiHack, has come to a close. As newcomers to the hack-a-thon model, our team has been impressed with the overall productivity and the projects that emerged. We are honored and excited to have witnessed the transformation of these great systems that now incorporate participatory surveillance and are excited to see how they will be implemented!
On the third and final day of EpiHack, groups gave their final presentations and demoed their new systems. (In alphabetical order), the award for:
“Best Scientific System” goes to CoPanFlu
“Best User Interface” goes to DoctorMe
“Most Transformational” goes to ILI Surveillance (Bureau of Epidemiology, Thailand)
“Most Impressive System” goes to Mae Tao Clinic
“Best Overall Utility” goes to Verboice
Here are summaries of the “new” systems:
This project included home visits to collect blood samples from 807 homes and weekly follow-up phone calls to document occurrence of infectious respiratory symptoms. These visits and phone calls created disturbances to the participants. The new system uses SMS for users to report symptoms. Chart and map visualization of the data (with full case details) and a fieldwork tracking tool were developed to help the research team analyze and monitor data.
In addition to all of the popular features of DoctorMe (free health information for the general public), the tool now features a weekly survey for their users. The survey will ask participants to select whether they are experiencing any symptoms on a list of 11 total. After submitting, participants will be taken to a map visualization of all reports in their area. DoctorMe will launch the new tool by sending an email to current website users. They will then develop a promotion plan to grow the system.
ILI Surveillance, Bureau of Epidemiology Thailand
The old system was web-based and had no visual element. The new mobile application and website provide a map visualization for the reported cases of influenza-like illness (ILI) in Thailand. The map shows hospital ILI cases with color-coded pins to indicate the level of ILI and allows for simple analysis of the situation.
Mae Tao Clinic
The electronic records for this healthcare clinic were very basic. During EpiHack, the data was moved to the cloud and is now open-source. A data visualization dashboard was created to allow for map visualization of diagnoses. The staff at Mae Tao Clinic can now easily view and analyze the data to spot trends and send alerts. They plan to pilot this program at their clinic and, if successful, to replicate with other clinics.
The technology platform of Verboice is so user-friendly it doesn’t require technical developers to develop the systems. At EpiHack, project managers were able to design and create systems to address needs in their work completely on their own. In just 8 hours, four project managers each completed their own voice-based participatory surveillance systems to monitor the following: One Health in Kenya & Tanzania; early warning generation in South Sudan; animal health in Laos; unexploded ordinance in Laos; child trafficking in Cambodia. The project owners of these new systems will now take these back to their countries and develop implementation and sustainability plans.
Below is a 3-minute slide show from the event.
This week, the Skoll Global Threats Fund has been been sponsoring a three-day hackathon, “EpiHack,” in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Along with local partners InSTEDD, Change Fusion, Opendream, and the Royal University of Phnom Penh, we have gathered 60 leading technical developers and global health experts to address the important, borderless issue of disease surveillance in Southeast Asia. We have been building out five prototype projects to incorporate participatory, or crowd-sourced, disease surveillance into the region.
During the first day of EpiHack, we broke out into smaller groups based on interests and skills and designed roadmaps for these five prototype projects. Then we moved on to real “hacking” to incorporate participatory surveillance into these existing systems. Below are descriptions of the five projects.
The Cohort for Pandemic Influenza in Laos (CoPanFlu Laos) is a laboratory-based system first implemented in Vientiane, Laos, in 2009 to investigate 2009 A(H1N1) influenza seroconversion rates and their determinants within an unvaccinated population. CoPanFlu Laos follows a general population cohort of 807 households and 4,072 participants that was established in March 2010. Sociodemographic data, epidemiological data, and capillary blood samples have been collected from all the household members on two occasions in the past.
DoctorMe is the first mobile application for health in Thailand on the IOS and Android systems. Initially, DoctorMe was created in 2011 to promote good health care and first aid for all people in Thailand. The original version was designed to be an electronic health manual with a database of more than 1,000 hospitals in Thailand for users to locate a nearby hospital when needed. The new version of DoctorMe includes an application designed to connect the user with the National Institute for Emergency Medicine (NIEM), offering free services by sending an ambulance instantly when you call 1669. Push notification is also being used in this version to keep people alert about health care issues.
ILI Surveillance – BOE
The Bureau of Epidemiology in Thailand set up web-based reporting for Influenza like Illness (ILI) with 987 government hospitals around the country. The project was established in 2009, with the hospitals submitting the number of ILIs weekly. A system analyst then sends back the results of national statistics coming into the ILI system to the hospital and other responsible people in the area via the Internet, email, and SMS for up-to-date information on the flu situation week by week.
The Maetao Clinic is a health provider and training center based in Mae Sot, near the Myanmar-Thailand border. Maetao was established to contribute to and promote accessible, quality health care among displaced Burmese and other ethnic peoples in this border location. The Maetao Clinic provides health care to 100,000 patients per year. The group has developed an electronic medical record that could be a good data source for disease surveillance.
Voice to voice interaction remains the most effective and primary form of human communication for both health care service providers and vulnerable groups who live in rural Cambodia. Due to poor network connectivity and literacy barriers, rural Cambodians are inhibited from using many technologies. In September 2012, with funding from Spider (The Swedish Program for ICT in Developing Regions), the InSTEDD iLab Southeast Asia introduced and extended Verboice, an open-source tool developed by InSTEDD to support health, safety and sustainable development programs in Cambodia. Verboice makes it easy for anyone to create and run applications that interact via voice, allowing people to listen and record messages in their own language and dialect, or answer questions with a phone keypad.
Our Larry Brilliant spoke at the Pentagon last week on global threats, outlining the interconnections between multiple threats and the need for a systems perspective in considering solutions. You can watch it here.
Global Zero has a compelling new video out using the power of celebrity to highlight the need for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Watch it here: