Wikipedia and the Next Pandemic

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As folks who know me really well and/or really astute readers might already realize, I have a minor obsession with the subject of plagues and pandemics (how many people do you know that have a “Plague Feeds” grouping in their blogroll?). Dating back to an old middle school project on the implications culturally and historically of the Black Death (thanks for all the help on that, Mom ;), I’ve always been aware of the absolutely unparalleled ability a simple little bacterium or virus has to disrupt pretty every aspect of life as we know it.

One of the reasons this fixation has not gone the way of so many childhood interests, I think, is the very real possibility that we could face something similar in our lifetime. As John Barry concludes in The Great Influenza (which I discussed here), for all the innovations in medicine since the 1918 flu, our ability to successful treat suffers would have improved little given that in many cases survival depends on the availability of ICU beds. It’s a problem of scale, not medicine.

In similar fashion, we see researchers and doctors on the front lines of the battle against the next great pandemic struggling not with inadequate technology, but with bureaucracy and deliberate obfuscation. As with SARS, reporting of Avian flu H5N1 (an often cited potential pandemic agent) incidents in the far east (principally China and Vietnam) is spotty and often incomplete.

Against this mess of red tape and conflicts of interest, researchers are choosing to employ…Wikipedia? Well, at least one researcher is (via the Coming Influenza blog, and for those with an interest in the subject, there’s an Avian Flu blog as well). Citing the impact that Wikipedia had post-Tsunami, Dr. Lucas Gonzalez of the Canary Islands in Spain is attempting to use the publically authored and edited site to help prevent, slow and survive an outbreak. I find this fascinating not simply because it’s an illustration of the growing public awareness of the power of things like Wikipedia, but because of how different a world we live in.

As Barry discusses, one of the critical problems during the 1918 pandemic was one of communication. Fearing panic, the government cracked down on the media, using official and unofficial channels to suppress and control content they believed to be objectionable or incendiary. The unfortunate result of all of this was that the public completely lost faith in any sort of official media, and like the boy who cried wolf when the time came to get actually truthful information out, no one believed it. When you see reports daily that nobody’s really dying, and daily claims that the cure is almost here, then walk down the street and see crepe paper (used to mark houses where a victim had passed away) on every house, you know something’s not right. Hopefully we never test the hypothesis, but with Wikipedia – or more decentralized means like blogs – it’s difficult to imagine that sort of censorship in today’s world (unless the internet itself was shut down).

On a slightly less morbid note, it’s great to see the internet allowing specialists in fields outside of technology with informal and low barrier to entry collaborative technologies such as blogs and wikis (are any of the docs Skype users, I wonder?) to bypass some of the traditional obstacles to multi-organziational and multi-national communication. I don’t know what kind of traction Dr. Gonzalez will get with his efforts, but it’s interesting either way to see him choose that approach. Plague related or no, I think it’s clear that we’re just beginning to see the impact of a new generation of network collaboration tools. Just as we’re still finding new ways to use “old” technologies like HTTP (i.e. Ajax), I think different regional disciplines will find new ways to use the tools that we’re all familiar with now. Cool stuff.

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