Category: The Internet

We’re All Worth $20,000

If you’re a science writer chances are you’re pissed off right about now. I am. What has me and so many other writers pissed off is this: The Knight Foundation recently paid disgraced journalist Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to speak about how he lied, plagarized and basically stomped all over journalism.

His speech was a lousy apology. I mean, it’s not his fault he made so many mistakes, he’s just too smart for his own good guys. I agree that watching him talk while a public flogging took place on Twitter on a screen behind him was awkward, but are we really supposed to just look at the situation and say, welp, everyone makes mistakes? No. That time I killed the dinosaurs several million years too late because I forgot the zeroes on a date was a mistake. A mistake that came from sloppiness, that I apologized for, and learned from. I was forgiven for that mistake (which was even in an article I wasn’t paid to write.) Fabricating quotes, plagarizing, and lying in multiple publications, for a prolongued period of time, that isn’t an, “everyone makes mistakes” scenario. That is a, you have fundamental character flaws that should prohibit you from doing this job, scenario.

A lot of the science writers I know, young, new, established – it doesn’t matter – were and still are up in arms about the Knight Foundation paying Lehrer $20,000 for his “apology” speech. I’m mad too, I’m mad for every single good journalist out there staring at their bank account wondering if they’ll be able to pay this month’s rent. I’m mad because $20,000 could fund a lot of amazing journalism and the Knight Foundation paid it pretty much just to get people riled up and talking about the Knight Foundation. I’m mad because good journalists are giving up because they can’t make enough money to stay alive in this business. Giving up. But we’re going to keep Lehrer’s career alive. That’s insane.

I have a full time salaried science writing job – it makes me feel lucky on a daily basis that I’m getting paid to do something that I enjoy. Still, as a science writer for a cancer center I’ve been told that I’m a sell-out. I’ve been told that I can’t consider myself a journalist anymore because my objectivity and integrity is tainted by being associated with an organization. Any organization. It doesn’t matter if it happens to be a decent, hell even a good, organization. I took a job in science communication rather than chasing a career in pure journalism because it makes me happy. While in graduate school I started having serious doubts about whether my personality was cut out for journalism. I took a long hard look at what I loved about science writing and decided that the act of communicating, of explaining, of seeing the impact of helping people understand was most important to me. It wasn’t a decision made based on money, but obviously the fact that I could get a paying job doing communication when there are no guarantees in journalism made the decision easier. The decision I made still gets to me sometimes though. It REALLY gets to me when I think about the fact that people contend I can’t consider myself a journalist anymore, but Lehrer can. Lehrer gets to be a journalist. Really?

Where do we even start to try to address the problem here? Can we ever even hope to convince the people who have the money to pay up for writers that are actually worth $20,000 (and really so much more?) I don’t know. But, I think the science writing community did a great thing by reacting to the whole $20,000 debacle by tweeting the names and articles of good writers using the hashtag #worth20k. The suggestion came from @vero_greenwood and was Tweeted by Ed Yong – who is worth far more than $20,000 himself – and ended up creating a list of pretty fantastic writers who deserve a lot more financial support for their work than they’re getting.

I wanted to add my two cents, but twitter is a medium for brevity and I feel like I need to explain WHY the fact that the following people exist means the science communciation ecosystem doesn’t need someone who lies, plagarizes, and then tries to tell us it’s just because he’s so smart. And arrogant. Can’t forget the arrogance. I could never list everyone whose work is worth20k, so this just a few people who inspire me, or have had an impact on my career in some way. I hope you’ll check out the hashtag itself for more, and as Bora Zivkovic said on twitter the whole SA Incubator is a list of people who are worth20k, so editors – help a new science writer out!

#worth20k (and so much more)

Jennifer Ouellette – I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I’ve never taken a physics class, barely scraped my way through high school chemistry with a D, and never took a math class higher than Algebra III (which I and everyone else in my high school knew was math for the dumb kids.) I’ve pretty much always wanted to write about science, but there was a moment in there when I wanted to be a scientist, (straight A’s in biology might have had something to do with it) – but I decided against science itself because I didn’t think I’d ever be smart enough to pass the classes. When I was just starting graduate school for Journalism focused on science writing I was really intimidated by writing about things I’d never studied. Enter Jennifer Ouellette. She came to UW-Madison as the science writer in residence and talked to us about how she taught herself physics. She blogs at Cocktail Party Physics and has written several books on physics and calculus. Whenever I start feeling like I’m in over my head and I’m just not going to get something right, I think about that talk. I dive back into the paper, or look up the answers and I figure it out. I remember that I can do this. I remember that I’m smart enough. TELL ME THAT’S NOT WORTH $20,000.

Steve Silberman – Last year UW-Madison hosted a conference on Science Denial. I was just sitting pre-session drinking my coffee when Steve Silberman sat down next to me. As we started up a conversation in my head I really couldn’t help thinking, “this is the most unassuming guy ever” because he clearly had no idea that I’d been trying to think of something inteligent to say to start up a conversation with him since the conference started. I’ve admired his writing for a while now, I always enjoy his PLoS blog and am so looking forward to his book! He always impresses me with the bravery and honesty in his writing. He tackles issues that might make people uncomfortable or be controversial and he does so with grace and eloquence. Worth $20,000.

Maggie Koerth-Baker – Maggie is someone I only recently got to meet (cheers, scio13) but whose work I’ve admired since I came across this fantastic explainer she wrote following the Fukushima nuclear incident. Nuclear Energy 101: Inside the “black box” of power plants is an awesome example of how to explain something that can be really complicated so that people take away the key information they need. I write a lot of explainers in my job, and I come back to this piece often as an example of how to get things right. Worth $20,000.

Rose Eveleth – The fact that since Science Online I have had people say to me, “wait, so you actually KNOW Rose?” totally just shows how amazing and admired Rose Eveleth is in the science writing community. She is a thoughful and creative science journalist who is busting her ass to make the science communication ecosystem better. You know what I would like you to do? I would like you go put her Kickstarter for Science Studio, a project with Ben Lillie and Bora Zivkovic, over the $8,000 goal so that they can sort through the best science audio AND video for us. Please. Only needs $8,000 but is SO WORTH $20,000.

Ivan Oransky – The man behind Retraction Watch and Embargo Watch, Ivan inspires me as a science writer because he saw a need in science communication and he did something about it. He started the blogs, and they’ve become a great resource and forum for talking about serious issues in science and communication. He made something, that we needed and benefit from – and he just does it so well. Be inspired. Create new, awesome things. Worth $20,000.

The rest of #sci4hels – Bora Zivkovic, Lena Groeger, and Kathleen Raven – All of you, and of course Rose, leave me pretty much feeling honored that I get to be associated with you. Whenever I talk about our panel at the World Conference of Science Journalists and people ask me “so why are you going?” I always reply with “I have no idea” because I really don’t feel worthy compared to all of you. I admire all of you so much, I did before all this #sci4hels killer science journalists of the future business, and I know I’ll continue to admire you after. Bora – our brave leader and the blogfather, not afraid to say what needs to get said, a never ending source of support and one hell of a writer. Check out his post on commenting threads, just the latest in a long line of awesome, thoughtful posts. Lena – her work at Propublica consistently impresses me, check out the awesome data visualizations used to track oil and natural gas pipeline accidents. I always love reading Kathleen’s articles, just one example is David Blaine’s Electrical Stunt Could Create Harmful Ozone. You are each worth $20,000 and then some.

Highlights from ScienceOnline 2013

I recently had the privilege of attending the Science Online conference in Raleigh, NC. The conference, hosted by North Carolina State University, has been described as “returning to the mothership” for bloggers, social media enthusiasts, journalists, writers and scientists passionate about communicating online. I heard a few people this year saying they didn’t feel that way, but I guess I drank the kool-aid, because I certainly did.

Myself, Kathleen, Bora, Rose, and Lena at Scio13 Photo by Russ Creech

Myself, Kathleen Raven, Bora Zivkovic, Rose Eveleth, and Lena Groeger at Scio13
Photo by Russ Creech

Attending Science Online in person was something I wanted to do because blogging and social media isn’t a part of my full time science writing job, but it’s still extremely important to me. Communicating effectively means using whatever platforms fit the story the best, and I feel like I do some of my best writing on this blog. I get to be my own editor (which comes with some pressure) but I also get the freedom to explore whatever I feel like I need to talk about, to share what I love and to hopefully help other people learn new things or be encouraged to try writing themselves.

I owe so much to Bora Zivkovic, blogs editor at Scientific American and co-founder of Science Online, for bringing me and my little blog into this community. Attending Science Online in person really did feel like coming home. I know a lot of people have said that before, but for me it was actually the first time I felt like I belonged in such a large group. I’ve been on teams, in clubs, in a sorority, in a grad program, and have held jobs where I’ve gotten to work alongside other science writers – I say with all sincerity that I’ve never felt so comfortable being my true self around so many different people, and that’s coming from an extrovert.

So, now that I’ve established that I’m all-in on the love-fest aspect of Science Online, what were the highlights?

  • As a first time attendee, I was completely floored and honored by everyone who came up to talk or say hello. It was wonderful to meet in person people whose writing I’ve admired and been inspired by. One of my favorite comments that I received was that I have a good twitter avatar because online me looks like real me, so I was fairly easy to spot.
  • Actually rallying the nerve to take the microphone and talk about my own experience keeping up my blog and twitter while working full-time for an organization. I was in the session on what to do when people start taking your online rambling seriously, and I added the point that when looking for a job I actually used my blog and twitter as part of my resume. I’ve never tried to hide my online activities, so I still feel comfortable being myself online, even though I now also represent my employer.
  • Attending the session on using personal narrative to tell stories really got me thinking about how much of myself I put into my blogging and social media. One of the most important points is that personal narrative can be effective, but it needs to serve a purpose ie: don’t put yourself in the story just to have yourself in the story.
  • On a similar note, I thought the session on thinking beyond text was also really valuable and I took away the same idea: multimedia needs to serve a purpose. Don’t use audio, video, etc. just to use it, make sure it helps the story. One of the ideas that I tweeted was that you don’t have to do all of the things all the time – I’m a firm believer in doing what you enjoy the most. I am, as Ed Yong said, “a committed text-monkey” so it makes sense to partner with people who love multimedia when I want to tell a story in a different way.
  • From the session on fighting bullshit in the science communication ecosystem (aside from some fantastically tweetable one-liners, see below) I took away the idea that to counteract inaccurate stories, or you know stories that are mind bogglingly ridiculous, we as a community need to be as loud as the people who are spreading the bad story. We need to amplify our impact when we do debunking.
  • I had several great conversations about my decision to take a job in communication rather than pursue a standard journalism job. My ideas on this are still percolating (and I suggested it as a session at #scio14 with Kate Prengaman) but it has been bugging me for a while that there is this perception that journalism is somehow better than communication, and that if you take a communication job you can never ever go back to being a journalist ever again. Ever. One reason it bugs me is because by that definition I am, already, an epic failure. Wasn’t exactly my life goal. I do something I love, so clearly I don’t agree with that, and I’m tired of hearing it.  Especially for stressed out grads or recent-grads, it feels like your entire career hangs in the balance if you don’t land that perfect journalism job right out of the gate- I think that’s ridiculous.
  • It was really interesting to me to witness the unraveling of the session on explanatory journalism with of all things, what I interpreted as miscommunication between the points that were trying to be made by well, I think everyone? It felt like the scientists and journalists in the room were spinning their wheels after a while, and I can’t wait to see how the conversation evolves in the future.
  • One of the things I enjoyed the most throughout the conference were the people who followed along with my tweets, and replied to me or added to the discussion. You are all awesome.
  • Listening to Diane Kelly tell the story of the first time she met Carl Zimmer when they were in their 20’s was awesome. It really drove home for me how the friends and colleagues I make now could end up as life-long connections. You should also check out her TEDMed talk, because it is great.
  • I am so excited at the idea that is floating around to start a regional Science Online in Boston. If you’re interested in joining us to try to get this off the ground check out #sciobeantown on Twitter and make sure to let Karyn know you are interested.

A few other things:

  • Remember that time on the first night I ended up in a conversation with Ed Yong, Carl Zimmer, and David Dobbs? At. The. Same. Time. It might have included an inner dialogue that went something like: “you can do this, they are just people, say words.”
  • I put my livetweeting skills to the test, ended up in battle, and emerged victorious (though, there was talk about it being a draw by those nicer than I, also a few accusations of intimidation – which I know nothing, absolutely nothing about.)
  • After receiving copies of Spillover by David Quammen, My Beloved Brontosaurus by Brian Switek, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes by Maria Konnikova and The Philadelphia Chromosome by Jessica Wapner I might just have to revive the book reviews section of my blog.
  • I am perfectly dreadful at origami.
  • I was able to meet Michelle Banks (aka Artologica) and bought an awesome painting. There is some great stuff in her Etsy shop.
  • We managed to squeeze in a great Sci4hels brainstorming session, and I am so excited for Helsinki and our panel on the Killer Science Journalists of the Future (it was also awesome to have Bora, Lena, Rose, Kathleen and myself in the same place for the first time!)
  • One of my favorite things to witness was Perrin Ireland’s live storyboarding of the session discussions, it was completely amazing.
  • Pie is a serious issue, and I can read a dessert menu with the best of them.
  • As a last thought I want to take the time to say thank you to Karyn Traphagen, Bora Zivkovic and Anton Zuiker because this conference takes a lot of work, and it is run with so much dedication and care. I want to thank everyone in this community, whether you made the trip to Raleigh or not, because you make my life so much better by sharing your thoughts and insights. A last thank you to everyone who shared a story, let me share my own, and had a good laugh with me – meeting you was truly the best thing about Science Online.

Also, this:

For more posts on the conference check out the list from the Scio13 Planning Wiki.

Blogging 101 Here’s What I Know

Not that I expect anyone to want to take the 20 minutes to watch a video that is essentially just me talking, but I recorded this interview about tips for bloggers who are just starting out so I thought I’d share it here. This was done as a prelude to a guest lecture that I gave in a Life Science Communication class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students asked some great questions, that I figured were also worth answering here on the blog. If you have questions about getting started as a blogger or want to add some wisdom (please, do!) definitely let me know in the comments.

Questions from the class:

Has your strategy for promoting and writing the blog changed since getting a full-time job?
Absolutely, I have less time to maintain the blog than I did when I was in school, so I have to be more strategic about what I do. I’m down to writing one post a week and I spend a lot more time on Twitter. 
How do you find and pick which topics to write about?
For a more detailed answer about this one, you can check out Filling the Empty Page: Reading to Write where I talk more about how I get story ideas from the things that I read, and how important it is to write about what genuinely interests you. 
If there is one thing you could have done differently what would it be?
I would have (and still should) comment more on other blog posts. This is a case of not practicing what I preach, I’m well aware of the benefits of commenting and getting involved in other forums, I just don’t do it nearly as often as I should. 
Is there a certain way you suggest commenting? As in: ask questions, critique, converse, praise, etc.
Comment however you want to, just make sure you are saying something that contributes to the conversation in some way.
How do you make yourself seem credible when writing about a serious matter?
If you check your facts, use the right sources, and are thoughtful and dedicated to getting the post correct then you are credible. People will see that. 
Are you using other social media sites besides Twitter to grow your blogging audience?
I just started using Google+ more, I’m intrigued to see what comes of it. 
Any advice in finding your blogging voice?
Blog a lot. When I first started Science Decoded, I wrote a lot more than I do now. You need to try it out, try different kinds of posts, explore different topics and eventually you’ll figure out what feels right to you. Give yourself time to develop your voice, you aren’t going to have everything exactly how you want it right out of the gate. 
Any tips for reaching out to influential stakeholders, it seems intimidating.
If tweeting or commenting to someone well established in your field, I think the best advice I can give is to just go for it – but have something of substance to say. If it really makes you uncomfortable, practice interacting with people you consider your peers first to get a better sense for how it all works. 
After you established a professional blog did you ever find yourself posting off topic of your specific aim because it was just so interesting you had to share it?
Absolutely. I kept Science Decoded fairly open ended in the first place because I knew I wanted the ability to write blog posts about a variety of topics. Even so, I’ve written posts that haven’t been related to science like when I went on a rant about supporting philanthropic causes or explained my fascination with Amelia Earhart. In my opinion, you can go off topic once in a while and you shouldn’t have a problem.
How do you keep your ideas confined to a tweet?
Tweeting short hand is tricky, it takes practice to instinctively distill ideas into a tweet but you’ll get the hang of it. 
What aspect of your writing has improved most over the years? (being concise, structure, etc.)
I would say the thing about my writing that has improved most since I started blogging is the ease with which I write in my own style. Like I said in answer to another question, your voice develops and becoming comfortable with my own voice is I think the best take-away from blogging. 
If you have any tips of your own, or if you have any other questions you’d like me to try to answer leave it in the comments! 

Crowdfunding A Library

Before you read this you should know that for this post I interviewed a personal friend, Cassi Elton, whom I have known since the sixth grade (we’ve come a long way since 1999.) I’ve supported her project financially, so obviously I’m not an impartial voice. However, the purpose of this post isn’t to raise funds for the Antelope Lending Library – it is to take a closer look at the structure of the project. With grants harder and harder to obtain, harnessing the power of the Internet as a community is playing a larger role in taking a project from enthusiasm to reality. Crowdfunding is something that is already being done to support science research, education, and other community projects so I asked my friend to share her experience.

First things first, who is Cassi Elton and what is the Antelope Lending Library? I’ll allow her to explain using their fundraising video:

Elton is a graduate student in the School of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. She saw a need in her community for a library on the southeast side of Iowa City – located closer to several schools so that students can go there regularly rather than needing parents to take them downtown to participate in events at the main library. As you can see from the video, the people involved in this project are certainly not short on ideas and excitement – or on books. They already have stacks of donated books. What they need is a physical space. So where does the money for that come from?
While there are grants and funding opportunities for educational, community based projects, according to Elton they usually support programming. So, it is a lot easier to find a grant that would support classes for STEM education, than it is to pay for a building to hold them in. This is something that I’ve heard echoed by scientists and researchers as well – not that they need a building, but that getting started is becoming harder and harder because to get a grant for research you need to have already done research. A lot of work goes into getting to the point where a project could compete for a grant. It reminds me of the employment dilemma so many of us are facing today:  to get experience you need to already have experience. To get financial support, you need to have proof that your research or project is worth funding.
So if a grant isn’t an option to fund the physical space needed for the Antelope Lending Library, what else is there? Private philanthropy is a possibility, but the Antelope Lending Library is a small endeavor. These are graduate students trying to do something to make an impact in their local community. Finding a philanthropist willing to give the library $20,000 as a lump sum is highly unlikely, I mean how many people do you know that would give that kind of cash to a library that doesn’t actually exist yet? What is far more probable is that if Elton, along with her fellow graduate students and members of the community start reaching out to their personal networks the sum needed for the library’s rent can be cobbled together from smaller gifts – everything from $10 to $1,000. That’s where the Internet comes in.

The Antelope Lending Library is hosting their fundraising on Indiegogo – which some people who read this blog may already be familiar with, since it is the website used by Matthew Inman of the Oatmeal to raise over $1 million for a museum dedicated to Nikola Tesla. But Indiegogo is just one platform for launching a project like this. Kickstarter is another popular crowdfunding website. For scientists there is also PetriDish, and RocketHub which hosted evolutionary pharmacologist Ethan Perlstein’s successful campaign to crowdfund a methlab (for science, of course.) One of the things Elton says she likes about Indiegogo is the fact that through flexible funding the Antelope Lending Library will still get whatever funds are raised even if they don’t hit their $20,000 goal. Although, with more than $6,000 raised to date the question of what to do in that situation is a complicated one, “It is stressful because if we don’t reach our goal then what are we going to do with the money we get?” said Elton, “Push forward or try to come up with a different project? We’re responsible for these donations and we take that seriously.”

When I asked what the experience of trying to raise rent money through crowdfunding was like, Elton has positive and negative feedback. On the positive side, putting the project on the Internet took the community from individuals in Iowa City, to individuals across the country. “Something really great about the Internet is that the community can extend beyond your physical location,” said Elton, “A lot of the donations are people from all over the country who value books and libraries so it’s great to get their support for a project that isn’t in their town – but that they still value.”
Although, Elton was quick to point out that calling on existing relationships was the first thing they did to start getting the word out about their campaign, “We have gotten donations from strangers – at least they are strangers to me, but the majority of the donations so far have come from people that I or my family contacted,” said Elton.
Another positive (or negative, depending on how you look at it) aspect of crowdfunding the library on the Internet was the ability to make in impression using multimedia. If you watched the video above, you’ll see that Elton shot it herself at home – but even this homemade endeavor is more appealing than a simple block of text. “The multimedia aspect is really great, but it was really intimidating to make a movie,” said Elton. “To make a movie is easy – to make a GOOD movie, that is harder.” Elton says it took roughly two months to get the movie together in part because volunteers balancing timing with other commitments presents a challenge, but also because a video itself is a project and trying to be ambitious and do a great job with it can consume a lot of time.
“The video isn’t the only way you are letting people know about the project, so it’s not the end all be all you are also letting people know what other sites to go to, and the written summary is also important,” says Elton. “Let people know through your own social media, the video is a part of it, but it’s not all of it.”
While incorporating multimedia was its own rewarding challenge, Elton says there are some downsides to fundraising on the Internet. According to Indiegogo it can take seven interactions with a cause before an individual will consider donating. So, the Antelope Lending Library has to get their campaign in front of people over and over to be effective – but they also have to balance getting out there with being overwhelming or annoying. “It’s hard to ask people for money,” says Elton. “With this you have to ask them for it several times that can be a lot.” Elton also says that with a campaign that spans 60 days, building up momentum and continuing to be excited, getting the word out, and keeping those who have already given up to date on the campaign’s progress is a big time commitment.
Another tip Elton has for anyone interested in crowdfunding their own project, is to make sure that when people ask you, “Why are you doing this?” (Which they inevitably will) you have a solid answer ready. It is also important to have an open conversation with other similar organizations in the area. The public library in Iowa City is aware of the Antelope Lending Library and has no opposition to a library opening on the southeast side of town – especially since the public library doesn’t have the resources for a location in that area. “Keep conversations going and stay open to collaborations,” says Elton. It makes it easier for the community to support a project that they know other organizations in their community also support.
Elton also highlighted social media – their website is hosted on Tumblr, they also have Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter pages – for getting the word out about the project. “Ultimately, I think that person to person outreach is the most effective,” says Elton. “As you get people on board, they talk to people so it’s still a one on one interaction but it expands.”
With grants more competitive than ever, I think we’ll see more and more projects like this turning to the public for help. The Antelope Lending Library project is just one example of how crowdfunding can work – if you’ve been involved in a project that used the Internet to raise funds, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Guest Post: Anna Tomasulo On HealthMap

This week I am happy to be hosting a post on Science Decoded by guest blogger Anna Tomasulo, project coordinator for Healthmap and Editor-in-Chief of The Disease Daily. Please note that I am not personally promoting Healthmap as a service, I just think it is an interesting case-study of the way the internet can be harnessed to gather data in real-time so I asked Anna to give us some background.

I never focused too long on the myriad of ways that the Internet has changed our lives, until recently. This past February, The Atlantic published excerptsof Polish pundit Piotr Czerski’s “manifesto” titled, “We, the Web Kids.” The essay put my relationship to the Internet into a new light- particularly when compared to how my parents, for example, interact with the Web. “The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it,” writes Czerski. The Web kids rely on this shared memory drive; we extract information, contribute to it, and re-post it at our leisure. We learn about new scientific research at home and participate virtually in uprisings across the ocean. Geographic barriers dissolve. And we expect to do this all instantaneously; we want it “here and now, without waiting for the file to download.”
This essay also put my first post-graduate school job into a new light. Admittedly, I am not very tech savvy; I’ve always thought of myself more as a qualitative, literature-oriented person. But my international experience, French language skills, and recently acquired MPH landed me at HealthMap, a research group, co-founded by a software developer and an epidemiologist, that uses online media to track infectious diseases worldwide. And it does this in real time, in an almost completely automated manner.
HealthMap Homepage

HealthMap Homepage

HealthMap was founded in 2006 by John Brownstein, PhD and Clark Freifeld, MS. Back then, Brownstein and Freifeld understood that there was a large gap between the beginning of an infectious disease outbreak and the public becoming aware of and responding to that outbreak. They attributed this lag to traditional public health reporting, which is often troubled by structural hierarchies and geographic and political barriers. For example, a typical public health worker in a small, remote village may take note of a strange syndrome that is surfacing in a handful of young kids. He or she might provide that information to medical professionals who will want to take samples for analysis. Well, the samples will need to be sent to laboratories miles away and it’s rainy season so the roads are washed out. Let’s say the samples did get to the lab. Once an infectious disease agent is confirmed, the report will then move on to district, national and then international officials. This whole process could take weeks. And during those weeks, infectious diseases can spread.
Brownstein and Freifeld recognized that there was a wealth of information available through the Internet that would fundamentally change the picture of global health. So, they created a freely available online platform that gave people access to this information.
Essentially, the system mines the Web for formal and informal sources of infectious disease news. Data is collected by carefully developed language specific search strings (HealthMap has news feeds in over a dozen languages) that sift through various news aggregators (Google News, Baidu, allAfrica), RSS feeds, mailing lists and chat rooms. The collected data is then automatically assigned a pathogen and location of the outbreak, based on information in the article (or chat room, mailing list, etc.). Then, the system determines the relevancy of each alert and filters it into one of six categories: Breaking, Context, Warning, Old News, Non-Disease Related, or International Significance. Any duplicate data is clustered together. The end product,, is a highly organized data set that allows public health officials, international travelers, government agencies and interested community members to access a real-time view of infectious disease outbreaks around the globe.
The HealthMap platform has been used to track public health threats in many contexts. Every year before the Hajj, we begin heightened disease surveillance on the countries that send the most pilgrims, and post all infectious disease news from these countries to a map created especially for Hajj. Similarly, we mine formal and informal sources for information regarding the wildlife trade because of its role in spreading zoonotic diseases.
The Internet has radically changed our way of life. It is no longer a tool that we use to perform a specific task or a tool that requires special training to use; it is an interactive system where people can deposit and build upon collected intelligence- an idea that Czerski hints at and with which Mike Kuniavsky, an entrepeneur who studies people’s relationships to digital technology, agrees. In 2008, Kuniavsky explained that all real world objects have “information shadows,” or digital representations, that exist on the Internet. These information shadows can be built upon and interacted with by other users. As a result, the Internet grows exponentially.
Arguably, HealthMap takes information shadows of disease outbreaks (local news reports, tweets, chat room questions, status updates, etc.) and augments official public health reports with real time information. But what makes HealthMap truly unique, is that it takes the informal information, or information shadows, and automatically makes it immediately useful to those who can act upon it.
Czerski differentiated our generation from others by pointing out that we are the first generation that exists not on paper, but on and through the Web. HealthMap is exemplary of the Web kid generation, as it has transported information disease tracking to the Web, and made it an immediate and global process. Not only is outbreak information available online and in real time, but it is also freelyavailable. Czerski finishes the manifesto with: “What we value the most is freedom: freedom of speech, freedom of access to information and to culture. We feel that it is thanks to freedom that the Web is what it is.” As a freely available site, HealthMap provides international users with knowledge to make informed health-related decisions. A true product of the Web kids, HealthMap has leveraged the power of the Web, and our existence on it, to improve disease surveillance and timely responses.