Tag Archives: public health

Why not open flu data?

On Monday, Nov. 23 the Globe ran this piece I wrote as a Special to The Globe and Mail. I’m cross-posting it back here for those who may have missed it. Hope you enjoy!

An interesting thread keeps popping up in The Globe’s reporting on H1N1. As you examine the efforts of the federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate their response to the crisis only one thing appears to be more rare than the vaccine itself: information.

For example, on Nov. 11, Patrick Brethour reported that “The premiers resolved to press the federal government to give them more timely information on vaccine supplies during their own conference call last Friday. Health officials across Canada have expressed frustration that Ottawa has been slow to inform them about how much vaccine provinces and territories will get each week.”

And of course, it isn’t just the provinces complaining about the feds. The feds are similarly complaining about the vaccine suppliers. In response to an unforeseen and last-minute vaccine shortage by GlaxoSmithKline (a manufacturer of the vaccine), David Butler-Jones, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, acknowledged in The Globe on Oct. 31 that “what I know today is not what I knew yesterday morning. And tomorrow I may find out something new.”

For those of you who are wondering what this shortage of information reminds you of, the answer is simple: life before the Internet. Here, in the digital age, we continue to treat the Public Health Officer like a town crier, waiting for him to share how much vaccine the country is going to receive. And the government is treating GSK like a 20th century industrial manufacturer you would bill with a paper invoice.

This in an era of just-in-time delivery, radio-frequency identification chips and a FedEx website that lets me track packages from my home computer. We could resolve this information shortage quite simply by insisting the vaccine suppliers publish a website or data feed, updated hourly or daily, of the vaccine production pipeline, delivery schedule and inventory. That way, if there is a sudden change in the delivery amount the press, health officials or any average citizen could instantly know and plan accordingly. Conversely, the government of Canada could publish its inventory and the process it uses to allocate it to the provinces online for anyone to see. Using this data, local health authorities could calculate how much vaccine they can expect without having to talk to the feds at all. Time and energy would be saved by everyone.

Better still, no more conference calls with the premiers sitting around complaining to the Prime Minister about a lack of information. By insisting on open data – that is sharing the data and information relating to the vaccine supply publicly – the government could both improve transparency, reduce transaction costs and greatly facilitate co-ordination between the various ministries and levels of government. No more waiting for that next meeting or an email from the Chief Public Health Officer to get an update on how much vaccine to expect – just pop online and take a look for yourself.

As noted by Doug Bastien over at GC2.0, the federal government has done an excellent job informing the Canadian public about the need to get vaccinated, including using social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos. Indeed, they were so successful they helped contribute to the current vaccine shortage. To ensure we respond to the next crisis successfully, however, we need more than a citizen-centric social media strategy. We need a social media and open data strategy that ensures our governments communicate effectively with one another.

Water Footprint and the bottled water debate

As many of you know, I’m not a huge fan of campaigns to ban bottled water for reasons I’ve outlined here and here (the short version is, bottled water is a healthier choice than coke or even OJ, so why no ban those?).

Those who wish to ban bottled water usually fall into two camps. There are those who believe that water should never be sold, under any circumstances. Here, there is simply an ideological difference. Frankly, I’m glad that someone is selling water so that on the rare occasion I’m on the move and want to buy something to drink I have a healthy option such as water and don’t have to buy pop or juice. Moreover, I’m not sure what a ban on selling water would look like. I can imagine that Dasani would start selling “containers” with water included for “free”.

The second camp are those who worry about the carbon impact of shipping and selling water. I completely agree with this groups concerns. I believe all products (water, coke, orange juice) should have to fully account for the environmental impact of their product. I too find water shipped in from Fiji offensive. Indeed, this is why I proposed that cities sell bottled water themselves – to lower the carbon footprint, mandate recycling, and radically under-price the established multinationals.

A reader found the chart below in the economist and sent it to me. It uses data from Waterfootprint.org and adds more complexity to the debate:

water footprint

My main disagreement with an outright ban is that it removes a healthy choice for consumers from store shelves. Now I see that it does something else as well, it removes a choice that has the lowest water footprint. From a water conservation perspective, we shouldn’t ban bottled water, we should ban coffee.

My fear is that this debate is now more about symbols than it is about good public health, water and environmental policy. Again, this is what drove my initial proposal at the bottom of this post. How do we make a healthy choice convenient and portable but balance that against the legitimate environmental and water concerns?