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Necessity is the Mother of Invention

July 11, 2007

28666027_64e99e57eb A few days ago, CIDRAP posted a news item out of Stanford University regarding the efforts of a class to establish a pandemic influenza hotline staffed by volunteers.  The plan works as follows:

According to the students’ report on the pandemic hotline, people calling in would be greeted by an automated message asking for their language preference and the reason for the call. Emergency calls could be routed directly to experts, bypassing the volunteer, who would have general knowledge.

The caller would then be routed to a volunteer for help. The volunteer would use a computer program to obtain local pandemic information on the Internet by typing in the caller’s zip code. Callers could obtain information on such topics as hygiene, local school closures, and how to stay healthy during a pandemic. If the volunteer’s Internet service went down—a possibility during a pandemic—calls would be routed to other volunteers.

 Let me be the first to say, “Super cool!”  Revere of Effect Measure, however, wonders if this is just another attempt to monetize our preparedness efforts here.  After initial plaudits, he says the following:

Courses like this most often promote the idea that the best way, or even the only way, to make the fruits of your labors available to society is to commercialize it. Most scientists want to have their research make a difference in the world but they have been convinced by NIH, their professors and their colleagues this means patenting, licensing and selling it. That’s “how it works” in the modern world. If you’re not willing to get your hands dirty in the business world your idea/discovery/invention will remain an academic curiosity or be picked up by someone else who will profit from it in your place.

While I agree with him on this point in most cases, and I think that a lot of good money will get thrown at this, I think it’s a moot point.  In the event of an influenza pandemic, such as what’s feared might develop from the highly pathogenic H5N1 virus currently circulating throughout Asia, Europe and Africa, where a general quarantine is asked for and social distancing measures are encouraged, this sort of thing will be created and distributed for free all over the Internet.  Sure, it won’t have the really cool call forwarding and queue-building, but something similar will grow up ad hoc in that situation.

I happen to think that one of the largest changes that might occur should a pandemic situation occur is an explosion of internet usage.  Online social media will become the de facto means of communication and, in many places, work.  Websites such as FluWikie will provide the latest in best practices and grow organically during the pandemic, and tools such as Twitter and instant messaging will become as commonplace as stopping by the water cooler or calling your grandmother.  As tends to happen when there is a large uptake in technological use, competitors will arise – be they free, proprietary or open source – and how quickly tools like this can adapt will ultimately show how successful this can be.

Photo credit: base10.

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