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H1N1 Health Agencies Still Don't Grasp Full Power of Web-Based Communication Strategies

BY W. David Stephenson | Thursday, April 30 2009

During Katrina I was a broken record in my homeland security/emergency communications blog raking federal agencies over the coals for not realizing the need for a web-centric 24/7 communications strategy. Now I'm on the backs of CDC and the WHO for the same failure during the current H1N1 crisis.

[Promoted by Micah Sifry]
The WHO's Director-General noted during her news conference yesterday that "For the first time in history, we can track the evolution of a pandemic in real-time." Well, after checking the WHO site I gotta tell you, it's news to me! First of all, that is the most text-heavy, 1998-vintage site I've seen in a long time (contrast it, if you will, to the private-sector, born-over-night National Swine Flu Situation Page. Which would you turn to for easily-understood, current info?). Also, if authorities can now track the data in real-time, where's the real-time Google Map of cases? Nope: both it and the CDC page have totally uninformative charts (for a good visualization you have to go to Dr. Henry Niman's map: he not only identifies the locales with pointers, but if you click on a pointer (if one was in your state, wouldn't you automatically do that?) it gives the entire history of that patient's case as it is known at present. Forget about that if you're going to the official sites (BTW, someone has got to step up -- unless there's already one up that I can't find -- and use Google's Motion Chart for an ANIMATED, REAL-TIME chart -- that would really be informative!)>

Even worse, IMHO, is the official sites' failure to realize we live in a 24/7 world, especially in a situation where the virus, as I understand it, is not limited to 9-5, local-time in terms of its spread. Both sites have gone 5-6 hours or even longer (especially the WHO site) without updates. Astounding! WE NEED 24/7 UPDATES, EVEN IF THE UPDATE FOR A GIVEN HOUR SIMPLY SAYS "NO CHANGES FROM THE PREVIOUS HOUR." Why? In part it's because we need to know if there is now a local outbreak and we have to take more aggressive precautions, but also government must build confidence that they are constantly monitoring the situation. I have to assume that's actually the case, so why isn't there some indication of that? If goes back to my work in environmental crisis management, where I used to tell clients that they had to provide real-time pollution detection monitoring directly to the mayor's office or fire department, not just report to them weekly: "don't trust us, track us" -- they must earn our trust through action, not just platitudes.

Similarly, I'm looking for automated structured data feeds (see my prior "Democratizing Data" posts to TechPresident from both CDC and WHO that would allow independent researchers to create their own maps and analyses in real-time, rather than having to scrape the data where-ever they can find it. I assume that the agencies are compiling such feeds for distribution internally to state and local government agencies, and, if so, why not share it publicly? (BTW: I think this strengthens my libertarian buddy David Robinson's argument that government should publish data feeds and then let advocacy groups and the private sector turn them into informative web sites. I don't buy the argument: government must take the lead on informing the public, but must also provide this information in easily-used forms so that others can use it as well.

Farther down the road, if we actually get to such a dire situation, I'd like to suggest another function that CDC should consider adding to its site. If there are widespread outbreaks and official quarantines are declared, how will officials be able to determine that someone who's housebound has the flu? I'd suggest a rigorously interactive crowdsourcing application that would lead a layperson through the diagnostic steps (including, for examples, some hi-res YouTube videos), and after you'd answered yes or no to a specific question to help triage family members, would then re-quiz you to make certain the data you'd entered was accurate.When you pushed the radio button to submit the form it would be labeled as self-reported (and therefore potentially less reliable, for statistical use, than a doctor's diagnosis, but, under the circumstances could be the best we could get. What do you think?

The official sites aren't without merit: CDC has a nifty widget that you can include in your own site, helping to spread the word,, both of them publish RSS feeds, both have video feeds, and both also Tweet. However, given the array of Web 2.0 tools available to them, I don't think it's enough, More important than any specific tool is that they must adopt this 24/7 public information model, or convince the virus to adopt normal working hours for its spread.