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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.

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