Month: October 2009

complexitydesign thinkingpublic healthscience & technologysocial media

Amazing Stuff: Halloween Edition

Happy Halloween everyone,

Halloween is a rather important day. It’s not only the day that dentists fear, but also the end to my favourite month and the end of the busiest period in the academic calendar when the last of the mid-terms have been graded (round one, anyway) and most grants are in (for now). Tomorrow, retailers will be rushing out the Christmas stuff in North America (at least those that didn’t have it out after Labour Day in September). But as these dates come and go, the amazing stuff continues to find its way into my inbox, Twitter feed, Facebook page, web browser and Google Reader feed. Here’s the neatest and most interesting things I discovered this past week:

1. How to Organize A Children’s Party (or how complexity science can help your work). Interested in complexity science, but don’t really know what it is or how you’d use it in everyday life? This very brief and entertaining video from Dave Snowdon (@snowded) at Cognitive Edge consultancy  explains the difference between ordered, chaotic and complex systems and how they might look from the perspective of organizing a party for 11-year old boys.

2. What Does Meaningful Mean? is an infographic developed by Frog Design to show how to design products and services that actually have meaning to people, not just tell people that they are meaningful. A good reminder to all of us who design things — which is most of us.

3. Brian Solis. OK, so this is not an amazing ‘thing’, but rather a website where Brian Solis, a marketer and PR consultant, hosts his blog and details his ideas and products for public consumption. There are a LOT of new media pundits out there (I won’t name names, but chances are you’ve heard of them) who are being raved about and followed by thousands who have very little to say when you actually listen closely. Brian isn’t one of them. Tour his site and you’ll see some interesting thoughts and insights on how social media can be used effectively by everyone to communicate, and not in some ‘jingo-istic’ manner, but in real terms.

4. Green Porno. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my colleague Andrea Yip (@andie86) who told me about this entertaining, informative and very odd set of short videos hosted by Isabella Rossellini that combines nuveau performance art, sketch comedy, sex, environmental education and awareness into a funny and uniquely effective medium for communicating about the serious issue of climate change and environmental stewardship.

5. And lastly, Healthmap, is a health and geographic information aggregator that maps infectious disease outbreaks across the globe. Become your own Centre for Disease Control at home and watch where the hotspots are for the flu and other illnesses in your neighbourhood or around the world.

complexityemergencepublic healthscience & technologysocial media

Seeing Simplicity / Seeing Complexity


We are on the cusp of what is known in public health circles as ‘flu season’. Unless you don’t get out much, you probably know that this year’s season has special significance because of the presence of a new relatively new, and powerful strain of influenza known as H1N1 (or ‘the swine flu’ to some). This week we saw the first large-scale roll-outs of vaccinations for H1N1 along with the annual drive to provide the public with flu shots. As is to be expected, there has been a lot of coverage of the flu and the efforts to provide a form of preventive medicine (a vaccine) in anticipation of what is expected to be a heavier-than-usual year of the flu. Judging by the waves of people I know reporting they and their loved ones are (or have been) sick in person, on Facebook or Twitter , I’d say we’re already off to a big year.

Vaccines provoke a lot of concern from people. After all, the basic tenets of a vaccine are to inject someone with either a dead or live version of the virus in tiny forms to boost the host’s immune system and it is natural to those without immunology or biology in their educational history to find this odd. Yet, we’ve nearly wiped out diseases like polio and smallpox because of these vaccines. Those successes have not translated into desire for more vaccines (despite their declared importance to public health), rather the opposite is happening. The current issue of Wired magazine focuses on this problem surrounding the link that some have drawn between Autism and vaccines. This link is possible because the diagnosis of autism often is made about the same time that the most common childhood vaccinations are administered. Despite there being considerable evidence to the contrary, a connection between two unrelated activities gets put together. Something simple is made complex.

This same example also illustrates the opposite. Vaccines and drugs are often developed by profit-making companies who hope to make money as well as profit health benefits. This profit motive can easily get translated into callous disregard for the public’s health and the inability to see the harm products cause: greed rules. Something complex is made simple.

The ability to shift between these two levels of abstraction is a critical challenge for public health. Unlike some areas of health practice, public health deals in the public realm, looking at issues that have importance to everyone, not just individual citizens. We are guided by public ethics, not private morals. But public health is messy for this very reason, because at its root are problems that are mostly complex ones — those with multiple causes and overlapping sets of consequences that cannot be fully predicted using simple methods or models. Complicated problems are ones that have a lot of components to them, but their organization and relationship to each other allows us to diagnose and prescribe a solution. Simple ones have few parts and very straightforward relationships. (A great illustration of these problems is here) .

Yet the impact of making problems at one level look like those at another cannot be understated. This is how myths develop and conspiracy theories take hold. In Canada, public health officials are trying to counteract the myths that the H1N1 vaccine (and flu shots in general) are being perpetuated. But in a social media ecology, that is hard to do, particularly when the myth-makers get so much attention and are motivated — by many conflicting reasons — to get their message out. Research has looked at the messaging behind anti-vaccination messages on YouTube and found it to be a source of a lot of contradictory messaging.

For public health, this is complexity in action and perhaps it is complexity — and social media — that might be the lens and tools to address these myths, otherwise they will continue to flourish. This isn’t such a problem when the consequences of doing something or not doing something has little impact on others. Vaccinations on the other hand impact us all – whether we take them or not — because compromised immunity for one, can lead to disease transmission to another. But things aren’t always what they seem. Once we believed that smoking was a simple choice, then we realized that it caused problems to the individual smokers’ health in myriad ways making it much more complicated, and now research has shown that cigarette smoking is having wide-scale complications to the health of others through second-hand smoke.

So is it simple or is it complex?


Public eHealth & Collaboration Networks Talk

I will be giving a public lecture at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health on “Public eHealth & Collaboration Networks: A Systems Science Approach to Population Engagement for Health Promotion“. The talk will be held Thursday October 22, 2009 at 11am in Room 610, Health Sciences Building (155 College Street, Toronto). Everyone is welcome.

design thinkingscience & technologysocial mediasocial systemssystems thinking

Amazing Stuff

So far the Amazing Stuff I’ve shared seems to be a hit with some folk. Perhaps this is the week that you’ll find something that I found pretty interesting relevant to you.

This week’s Amazing Stuff post features some thoughts on design. I first thought the word ‘designer’ had to mean going to design school or something to that effect. Thankfully, the many brilliant design thinkers out there who are promoting that way of seeing the world have shown me the error of my ways and illustrated how we all can be designers — and how with some thought and creativity we can become good ones. I design public health programs and resources and find myself fascinated by the myriad benefits that design thinking (like systems thinking) has to offer our enterprise.

1. The Value of Empathy . The Design Observer Group has a great website for ideas on design and this they featured an essay by Andy Chen on the role of empathy in design. He also writes a sharp, sometimes biting, critique of the way in which designers (and marketers) play on emotions to stir empathy on one hand, while being totally oblivious at other times. His illustrations from advertisements such as the RED campaign really take this message home and provided me with one of the most inspired reads of the week.

2. Is Social Media the New Cigarette? Probably the most provocative read I had all week was this post from Bill Ives and his Fast Forward blog. Bill goes way out on a limb and points to some rather disturbing and sometimes humorous parallels between cigarettes and social media both in how we use it and how it gets regulated in society as a result.

3. The Book of Odds. Did you know that the odds of choking to death on a non-food object is about 1 in 92,950? I didn’t either — until I discovered the Book of Odds, which was launched this week. The ‘Book’ is a compendium of stats on all kind of things serious and, well, odd, taking odds-ratios to a level of prominence that we’ve never seen before. Entertaining and useful all in one well-packaged site.

4. The Democratization of Social Networks. A little more on the academic side of things, Amanda Lenhart from the Pew Internet & American Life Project posted a presentation showing how the landscape of social networking is changing rapidly. Almost half of Americans are now engaged in some type of social networking activity online, which is up from less than 10 per cent last year. If you think social networks are a fad, you might want to look through Amanda’s presentation.

5. The Chemistry of Information Addiction. Another science-based gem this week was a report in Scientific American about research that looked at monkeys and information needs and the neural basis for our ‘need to know’. It turns out that we just might need to know the answer. The research is laying the foundation for future studies looking at human information use and testing the hypothesis that, in some way, we are information junkies and, when given the opportunity, will do whatever we can to get more information about the things that are important to us and that this is a hard-wired part of the brain.


Amazing Stuff

What a busy week (it seems I say that a lot). Akin to Sergio’s White Hot Top 5 on Current TV’s Infomania, here are the five things that I found amazing (or at least really interesting) over the past week:

1. The NY Times Freakonomics Blog featured a guest post from James McWilliams on the question of locavores and their true environmental impact. Like the Freakonomics guys, I am attracted to contrarian perspectives on received wisdom. McWilliams post suggests that we question claims that eating locally is necessarily better for the planet. He doesn’t dismiss the many reasons why people like farmers markets and getting to know who produces your food, but he does question if that isn’t used to inflate the economic and environmental benefits of eating locally. Something to think about and question on both sides.

2. The Future of Healthcare is Social. I love this slideshow on Fast Company’s website. It describes a wired future where handheld devices and (I’m reading into this — maybe projecting??) interoperable databases and tools will allow health practitioners and patients to learn from one another and create a truly social health system based on the best knowledge from the whole system. Dare to dream.

3. Imagine Leadership. This short YouTube video also adds some contrarian and received wisdom on leadership and what it takes to truly lead. It’s short and provocative. Developed by Nitin Nohria and Amanda Pepper of Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative and the XPLANE visual information consultancy group.

4. I love WorldChanging. They always post some innovative and provocative material. This week, the post that caught my eye was corresponding to International Walk to School Day and got me thinking about how design thinking can contribute to a much healthier, better and safer setting for our children by giving them back what I had as a child: a walk to school.

5. Wired Science has profiled the best microscope photos from the past 35 years. Once you get your head around the fact that these are REAL pictures taken of microscopic things you can enjoy some of the most beautiful images that nature produces for us every day.

Have a great week everyone!

eHealthpublic healthsocial mediasystems thinking

eHealth and the Trust Factor

In eHealth we trust?

In eHealth we trust?

Today it was reported that the Ontario Minister of Health has resigned, presumably on the wake of the eHealth scandal (which I discuss in an earlier post) that engulfed the current Liberal government since it was revealed that there were considerable questionable expenses made by eHealth Ontario. It’s all a mess, most notably because at its root eHealth is all about trust and that seems to be the element that is most absent in this political spectacle. The elected officials do not trust the bureaucrats at eHealth Ontario, while the public loses its trust in the elected officials. Mingled in with this is a problem with trust of the government to develop a reasonable eHealth information system on its own and the simultaneous distrust of the private sector to do it for a reasonable fee and deliver an effective and efficient service. So far, all these fears are well-grounded as played out in this scandal (and when you spend $1B on a system that can be delivered for a small fraction of that and wind up with little to show for it, it is a true scandal).

The irony in all of this is that eHealth is founded on trust. We trust that our records will be stored in a manner that is secure, but also accessible. We trust that the most appropriate use of health information gleaned from information we provide to health professionals or online will follow from having these systems in place. There are the tools and resources to do this and they are not that hard to develop. That isn’t to say that this is something one person can slap together in an afternoon on a PC, but it doesn’t take a billion dollars to do it either. In the United States, The Veteran’s Administration has its own eHealth University to train people on how to use the eHealth system they developed (and it is going to be open-source I might add, meaning that the world can take it and adapt it). They have put the resources into building trust among health care professionals by offering training, developing a transparent model, and in doing so, fostering trust in their patients.

eHealth in the public sphere is equally about trust. Social networks — the foundation of nearly all of the leading websites and tools from Google to Facebook to Twitter — are all based on trust. Karen Stephenson, a pioneer in the early research on social networks in organizations, says that trust and its ability to broker relationships serves as a kind of backbone of innovation, by leveraging social capital across organizational boundaries. From a systems science perspective, trust is the mechanism by which diversity can be better engaged in the system — whether that is diversity of ideas, opinions, cultural expression (example) , sexuality, and identity.

Marketers Chris Brogan and Julien Smith recently published a book that argues that marketing — the spreading of ideas about a topic or product — is essentially about creating and engaging trust agents. From a public eHealth perspective, this means providing ways to get people connected in a safe, secure manner that enables them to share their ideas, innovate and learn in a way that supports — even enhances — trust.

The challenge in Ontario is building that trust back up. eHealth has become a ‘four letter word’ and its name — fairly or unfairly — has been sullied by the events of the past few months. Let’s find some ways to build it back up and do it in a way that makes us all better for it. Ideas are welcome.


The Launch of Amazing Stuff

Today I am launching a new feature on my blog: Amazing Stuff. It is a way for me to share the neat ideas, hot innovations, challenging ideas and random bits of ‘stuff’ that I find quite compelling, inspiring or just fun that somehow touches on the myriad issues related to making ‘CENSE’ of the world around me. Yes, you can always follow my Delicious social bookmarks, or what I Stumbleupon, but I’m not always good at social bookmarking great ideas, particularly after a busy day away from my desk when I’m staring at 200 updates on my Google Reader feed.

My choice of the term amazing is inspired by comedian Louis C.K. from his appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show a few months back. Watching this, I think you’ll agree that we are living in amazing times and this is a sample of the amazing things I’ve found over the past week:

1. The Design Thinkers Reading List. This is a summary of the must-have books and documents for those interested in design thinking (like systems thinking, only for how we shape the human activities and environments we live in).

2. How to Turn Urban Spaces Into Food Spaces. Taking unused land and using it more efficiently to help feed the poor and create a more sustainable food system for urban centres.

3. How Our Moral Roots Damage Our Thinking. A blog post and interview at TED with social psychologist Jonathan Haidt who discusses how the U.S. Healthcare debate is being shaped by forces that are not likely to lead that country into a good place.

4. Interview with Paul Hawken on Our Environmental Future. Environmental economist and leader Paul Hawken discusses his views on the future of the planet and the reason he still has some hope.

5. The Dark Side of Political Discourse on the Internet. Tim Bevins from Wikinomics shows us what happens when democracy meets the unbridled opportunity of having everyone speak their mind and its not pretty.