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2010-12-10

State of Preparedness in NC

We had a field trip today. Several colleagues and I visited with officials at the NC Department of Agriculture and  Consumer Services and the NC Division of Emergency Management. Some impressions:

The Agriculture folks are well aware of the issues of food purity and contamination in the growing, transportation, and processing of food for consumers. Paradoxically, the movement for organic farming sometimes introduces contaminants into food because producers are not big enough to screen for these substances. At times these issues can cause bacteria to persist on fresh items--those healthy, green leafy things--that would be eliminated if cooked. (As my mother said, "Wash that lettuce, you don't know where the dog has been.")

Emergency Management takes great pains to show that they know how to handle any issue. They discussed the variety of disasters they have faced in the experience of the folks who talked to us--we are talking decades. They handled hurricanes, fires, and floods. Very impressive. I was glad that I live here because our emergency services are well prepared. Nevertheless, I wondered about the threats that we have not seen. Whether natural or human-induced, we unfortunately will face a variety of new types of threats in the coming years as we alter the environment and change our own habitat. How will we detect them? How can we be ready for the threat we cannot yet imagine?

2010-12-05

ISDS, BioSense, and Being Prepared

I attended the annual meeting of the International Society for Disease Surveillance last week. There were more than 300 people there, including a strong contingent from North Carolina. In fact, it was gratifying that our NC DETECT folks were so well respected by the attendees.

An interesting part of the meeting for me was the intake process by CDC's BioSense team, including a group from RTI who are helping with the effort. They are trying to redevelop the national system that is supposed to provide early detection of disease outbreaks. They interviewed a large number of people individually, and even included me for a 60-minute session. As an information technologist, I bring a different perspective than an epidemiologist or public health official. Having participated in a number of software development projects, I've seen (and committed) a large number of errors in the process. To their credit, CDC and RTI are taking a user-centered approach. That should help them avoid some previous mistakes in the development of the system, but I counselled that it would not be sufficient.

I advocated adopting user-centered innovation. (I wish I had come up with the term, but I take it from Eric Von Hippel's Democratizing Innovation.) The idea is that people solve problems all the time by innovating, they usually don't recognize it as such. Whether it's people changing old, fat-tired Schwinns to ride on mountain trails or pulling an extract of data into Excel and writing a script to look for a disease outbreak, innovation happens all the time. The trick is to identify a user community that cooperatively develops new techniques for their own purposes. Frankly, we all want our problems solved and often create methods to do that. We usually don't care if the solution is useful to others since we are just making it better for us. Moreover, most of us are schooled to consider our efforts modestly--"What? I'm not in inventor."

Changes in information technology allow many more of us to get our innovations (and thoughts like these) in front of a wider audience. And the cost of innovation in the IT space can be very low. That is the flip-side of open source software development. Because the cost to the individual contributing code is so low (usually just the time spent on the project) that individual feels empowered to make that personal investment.

Beyond just harnessing that creativity, we should create areas where it can flourish. The proliferation of mash-ups is evidence that there is a pent-up desire for personal expression in innovation. We all remember the sandbox where we developed amazing ideas--why not find ways to bring that experience to people virtually to unleash their innovations.

2010-10-01

A New Position for Me

Today, I started a new job as Executive Director of NCB-Prepared. That stands for the North Carolina Bio-Preparedness Collaborative. For those following at home, that is a partnership (as of this writing) of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina State University, and SAS Institute to develop a new biosurveillance system for the state. It's funded by the US Department of Homeland Security. The idea is to create a system at the state level that will serve leaders at the local and national levels as well. Starting with a single state allows us to leverage existing systems and organizational relationships in the development of a new system.

But you may be wondering what biosurveillance is. Good question. Officially, it's "the process of active data-gathering with appropriate analysis and interpretation of biosphere data that might relate to disease activity and threats to human or animal health – whether infectious, toxic, metabolic, or otherwise, and regardless of intentional or natural origin – in order to achieve early warning of health threats, early detection of health events, and overall situational awareness of disease activity" as expressed in Presidential Directive 21 in 2007. Still awake? Actually, it means watching the biosphere for threats to human health. The threats can be natural, such as avian flu moving from birds to humans, or human-made, such as mailing anthrax spores to members of Congress.

How do we watch out for these threats? That's the job of NCB-Prepared. Big job.