Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Help Needed on US Labor Rule Change

Celeste Montforton suspects that the U.S. Department of Labor might be engaged in midnight rule-making in the NEXT FOUR DAYS to weaken workplace safety protections. She is asking for help to determined whether Labor has "decided that the risk assessment rule does not require OMB review?" and plans to "publish a final rule on OSHA’s and MSHA’s risk assessment procedures ASAP, despite the load of comments they received and could not possibly have addressed in a final rule?"

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Authentic Sharing vs. Selfish Sharing

By all means, share what you are doing on the web. Just make it authentic.

Previous posts in the series: "Rethinking why I blog" and "What Plumpy'Nut taught me."

When Richard Lalleman of the Netherlands asked me to share my delicious feeds about development with his Focuss.info initiative, I came back at him with some questions to make sure I knew just what kind of sharing he was talking about. I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t going to use my freely available feeds for a commercial project and that it would NOT require any extra effort on my part.

That got me thinking about the nature of sharing on the web. And whether it’s any different from sharing in the real world.

My church, like many community organizations whether faith-based or not, collects cash and canned goods for our local food pantry. Every year, we need to explain to the youngest crop of Sunday Schoolers what sorts of items are worth sharing. Usually, one or two discover the brilliant strategy of sharing something they don’t like—like canned peas. It’s a two-fer. They get rid of something they don’t want and they get points—in case anyone is keeping score—for sharing.

And so every year we explain again that the point of sharing is not to share what you don’t like but to share your love, in this case something that you find tasty or that you would want to receive yourself.

That first impulse—to selfish sharing—is totally human and not something that we necessarily grow out of. Think about how many folks donate clothes that they would never wear. There’s the satisfaction of sharing, not to mention a tax deduction. We won’t even go into the harm that free clothing has done to struggling textile industries around the globe.

A lot of the potential of the web comes from what’s called the “gift economy” or the benefits of collaboration.

The more you look, the more you realize there are different levels of sharing, with differing levels of authenticity.

Here’s a list, with examples, that I am playing around with. Some of the layers overlap, of course. Feel free to play along, whether here or on your preferred social media.

Selfish-sharing: (see above)

Reciprocal sharing: You watch the kids on Tuesday and I’ll watch them on Wednesday.

Self-interested sharing (or enlightened self-interest): I’ll tweet my voting experience as a way of improving democracy.

Convenient sharing: I’ll share the idle time on my computer to help model new ways to control malaria parasites.

Sharing from abundance: I can’t eat all these tomatoes from my garden; would you like some?

Coincidental sharing: I had to do this anyway, but I don’t mind sharing what I learned about getting a cell phone in Malawi.

Catalytic sharing: let’s all get together and write the code for [insert favorite open-source program here] and watch it change the world when we’re done. Or let's share what we know about treating drug-resistant tuberculosis.

Sacrificial sharing: the stranger who dives into icy waters to rescue a child trapped in a sinking car. A soldier’s ultimate sacrifice.

Next: Sharing and Global Health Blogging

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

What Plumpy’Nut Taught Me

Online collaboration may be the wave of the future but it’s not so easy to convince people to do it. As I learned last year, lots of public health folks were willing to talk to me about the Plumpy’ Nut patent but most were reluctant to act as journalists themselves, to help dig for the story, pull the various threads together.

Many were intrigued by the patent issue but didn’t want to join in publicly because they didn’t think they were expert enough. A few, no doubt, also felt the need to play it safe. After all, who knows what future employers (or donors) might think? As always, the people who knew the most were often the least interested in going on the record—in whatever format.

This is the second post in a series that started with “Rethinking Why I Blog.”

I learned about the Plumpy’Nut patent in October of 2007. I was attending a nutrition conference in which I picked up some hallway grousing from a humanitarian group that had been told it could not whip up its own version of Plumpy’nut, a carefully fortified peanut butter that has done wonders in the fight against severe malnutrition.

There was a patent on Plumpy’Nut, taken out by its manufacturer Nutriset (and the French government, I later learned.) Even though the recipe is widely available and easy to follow, making a batch on your own in many countries would land you in plenty of legal hot water.

Fascinating case. Before then the only reports I had heard or seen about Plumpy’Nut were glowing accounts about its proven qualities to save young children’s lives.

My first impulse was to dig deeper and write a freelance piece. But here I hit a snag. The rule was no freelance while on a Nieman fellowship.

So then I thought about it a bit and rather than ask for an exception, I decided to use this as an experiment in online collaboration. Normally I would hoard the information until I could come out with a fully-fledged piece. Otherwise, I would risk being scooped.

Instead, I decided to share it all, from the beginning, starting with the first disgruntled vibes I picked up at that conference. I envisioned a group blog where a bunch of interested folks could pursue the story—each contributing a different piece. And so launched what I hoped would be a group blog at Patents and Peanut Butter.

Talked to a number of students at Harvard’s School for Public Health. All were unfailingly polite, many offered suggestions, a number were intimidated by the blogging software. Most found it easier just to talk to me and let me write whatever I wanted on the blog.

Talked to several faculty members, including Richard Cash, who helped develop oral rehydration therapy back in the 1960s. Like Plumpy’Nut, ORT is a dead-simple recipe that saves lives. Unlike Plumpy’Nut, ORT is not patented. Anyone can make it. Many manufacturers do, but so do folks at home.

Several legal types thought the Plumpy’Nut patent wouldn’t stand up to legal challenge. I learned about “prior art” and “non-obvious” innovations.

Once again, the old habit—of journalist interviewing source as opposed to source commenting directly on a web site—was hard to break. I was perfectly willing to break it. But most people I talked to were not.

And so the blog sputtered along. I continued adding notes as time and opportunity allowed. But the hoped-for group blog did not materialize.

And yet, after a few months on the Internet, I did start getting inquiries and a few people from around the world added their two cents—some of them anonymously (which brings up all sorts of other issues.). Most of the interaction was still via e-mail. Most people didn’t feel comfortable posting comments on the Internet—despite repeated encouragement on my part. A few got into the spirit.

This was not the instantaneous burst of community magic that I had hoped for. But a kind of long-amplitude wave eventually did materialize. My old Plumpy’Nut posts kept getting traffic. Maybe I had brought a fast-food mentality to a slow-cooking world.

And indeed, a year after the blog went up (and many months after I stopped posting anything new), I received an e-mail from Martin Enserink at Science, who was working on a story about Plumpy’Nut and wanted to include a sidebar on the patent controversy.

We exchanged some information—though I couldn’t tell him much more than what I had already posted on the Internet. And Enserink's article—a piece of real journalism—has advanced the story. That’s where I learned, for example, that the real sticking point in the patent controversy may be the French government—and not Nutriset.

On balance, I learned more by sharing the Plumpy’Nut information when I did than if I had hoarded the information. And other people—whom I would never have known about otherwise—learned a few things through our exchanges or just by lurking on the blog.

As for news gathering, this felt kind of like a disorganized (or is it self-organized) relay race. Sometimes I was the leader passing the baton, sometimes I was receiving the baton. And sometimes, much to my surprise, I was just one of the bystanders (formerly known as the audience) cheering the race on.

Next: Authentic Sharing vs. Selfish Sharing

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

What to Tell the Global Health Fellows?

Going to Cambridge, Mass. this weekend to impart whatever wisdom I can to the current global health fellows about the academic year at Harvard, the field project and life after the Nieman year. Looking forward to hearing what they’re doing and to catching up with David Kohn and Andrew Quinn, who will also be there.

But what to say that they don’t already know? All three of the current global health fellows have extensive experience in developing countries—Vietnam, Nigeria and India.

And how to prioritize? I still have trouble talking about the Malawi trip in anything less than treatise form. And so when friends ask, I often just say it was great and leave it at that.

If I had to focus on just three things what would they be?

1. Importance of sharing what you’re doing. e.g. Plumpy’Nut patent, putting Malawi proposal on the web. Solicit feedback but don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it or it doesn’t come as fast as you’d like it to.

2. Plan, plan, plan. Thinking of the field project as three distinct phases: pre-production, production and post-production. My own struggles with post-production. Don’t forget to bring the Malawi planning book I created. Also the laminated contact cards.

3. Bite off more than you can chew. But not too much more. Then let it happen.

Check with David and Andrew to see what they're thinking.

Rethinking Why I Blog

My journey from live-blogging to beat-blogging to transition-blogging to a new state of grace that you might call emergent-blogging. This is going to take a few posts.

I’m still not sure emergent-blogging is the right catchphrase but it will have to do for now. What I mean is that I am now using this blog more and more to grapple with the ideas, projects, etc. I am already working on. I find that writing things out often helps me figure out what I think, what I should be doing next. You just have to be careful not to force a conclusion or a takeaway message.

The Global Health Update was one of the first blogs at Time.com. My co-workers and I launched it as a way of live-blogging TIME’s Global Health Summit in the fall of 2005. I was so taken with the medium that after the conference was over I convinced the powers-that-be to continue the blog because I wanted a place to cover global health news more often and in greater depth that we were able to in the limited real estate of the print magazine.

I quickly learned that blogging was a great way to keep up with global health news—and after TIME’s lawyers finally okayed the comment feed, we even managed to get some great conversations going. Nerd that I am, I loved checking out the web analytics software to see which .edu’s and .br’s and .mw’s were checking out the site. Traffic never grew to Swampland proportions but it grew nonetheless.

And after all, isn't that the point? That you don't need the mass audiences that make traditional media possible? It turned out there was an audience for global health issues and they didn’t all work for the same three NGOs. Also, it didn't hurt that I broadened my reputation as a global health journalist. A win-win, as the B-school folks like to say.

After I left my staff position at TIME and headed up to Harvard for a Nieman fellowship, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with the blog—other than the fact that I wanted to continue blogging about global health. So I turned to Blogger, believing what folks said that the most important ingredient for success in blogging (whatever that means) was to be passionate about something—and I had plenty of passion.

I struggled a bit with how much I should write about what was happening in classes and often played it safe by posting about public lectures (by Ira Magaziner or Tim Wirth or Agnes Binagwaho) and other events. Or I’d post my reactions to some of the ideas and concepts I was picking up (like why the phrase “maternal mortality” just drains you of the desire to do anything whereas a book like Monique and Mango Rains fires your soul.)

Then in October of 2007, I learned about a brewing controversy over Plumpy’Nut, the nutritional supplement that saves starving kids' lives, and the decision by Nutriset (and, I later learned, the French government) to protect the incredibly straightforward recipe with a patent.

My first reaction was to write a freelance piece. But that wasn’t allowed under the terms of my Nieman fellowship. (The laudable idea being that a fellowship is supposed to get you away from the grind of deadline journalism.)

That's when I really started to grapple with the ins and outs of sharing on the Internet.

Next: What Plumpy'Nut taught me.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday Links: India, Bush Regs, Ignoring Systems

IBM researches information-web based on cell phones for the millions who cannot read in India. (SciDevNet)

Celeste Montforton says how you undo Bush-era regulations is just as important as what you undo. (The Pump Handle)

Karen Grepin on why so much debate over cost-effectiveness or even whether it's more important to fund AIDS or maternal and child health programs misses the point. Have to think about education, human capacity, health systems, she says. Makes me wonder if the latest Lancet piece that charges that too much money is going to infectious disease is also off base for the same reason. (Karen Grepin's blog)

Social Networks for Global Health and Development

Just last week I was thinking once again that the global health community has been slow to the digital social networking party. Then I received an e-mail from Richard Lalleman asking me to join a world-wide effort to build up a collaborative database of public bookmarks on global development.

Actually, Lalleman doesn’t want me, per se. He wants the RSS feed of my delicious tags (e.g. development, globalhealth, poverty.) After checking out Lalleman's web trail (LinkedIn, Twitter, blog, Foccuss.info) and asking for some clarification, it seemed like a good idea.

At first I was a bit confused—partly because Lalleman’s main site—Foccuss.info—is full of Dutch-inflected English and a fair amount of academic jargon. Lalleman is an information and knowledge management expert—which is to say the 21st century model of what we used to call librarians—a group of people I revere. So, I was willing to slog through all the abstractions and theory.

But here’s the essence: if more people in the development world would share their favorite sites on the web, it would make searching for credible information easier than what’s currently possible with generic search engines from Google or Yahoo.

Since I already make my bookmarks publicly available on delicious, Lalleman isn’t asking me to do anything extra. Just using what I’m already doing. He doesn’t even care if I use delicious or some other social bookmarking site.

And that’s key. A lot of idealistic types who think social networking is going to save the world seem to have a “if we build it, they will come” attitude. This typically requires a lot of work for not a lot of payoff. Example: Aaron Wallace’s global health social networking site at swala.org. Looked great when he launched it a year ago. Still doesn’t have that critical mass needed to make a social networking site work.

Instead, social networkers have to figure out what folks are already working on and simply convince them to share that publicly.

Most social networks for global health are still toiling in the list-serv phase of global collaboration. Critically important—especially in areas where e-mail is more easily accessible than the web. ProMED-mail, for example, works incredibly well on this model and on a shoestring budget with a lot of volunteer labor.

But the web-based systems offer advantages in greater interactivity and facilitating many-to-many conversations. You have to get beyond thinking of blogging for its promotional value (that idea could really use a post of its own) and really start thinking of platforms. You also have to get beyond thinking about social networking for its fund-raising value (another theme worthy of many more posts; see especially Beth Kanter on fund-raising in Second Life).

In the meantime, I’ll keep my eye on Focuss.info.

The other web-based social networking site for global health that I’m aware of is Global Health Delivery Online, an initiative out of Harvard and affiliated partners that’s trying to create online communities of practice around tuberculosis, AIDS and a few other targeted areas.

One of the big questions I have about Global Health Delivery Online is whether they can go beyond the Harvard brand? In other words, will folks from Columbia, Johns Hopkins, the Pasteur Institute, World Health Organization, the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases join the conversation?

But that’s enough about social networking for one entry.

Related posts:
Web 2.0 Comes to Public Health
Where are the Global Health Blogs?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Logging More Malawi Video

Oh thank goodness. This past weekend I discovered that just about everyone finds logging video tedious. I was at the Nieman Foundation’s 70th Anniversary convocation and telling my tale of woe about logging the video I had shot in Malawi to friends who are television producers and documentary makers.

Here I was afraid that I was doing something wrong—that something about my print journalism training had messed me up forever for dealing with video. What other explanation could there be if logging video was taking me so long and seemed so excruciating?

All the TV and video folks assured me that what I was feeling was absolutely normal. And that that sense of being overwhelmed by all the material I had gathered would eventually go away as I got better at planning my shots, producing and editing on the fly.

It is a situation that’s very akin to the kind of ruthless editing you have to do when you write. My friend Lorie Conway urged me to focus on just two stories out of the gigabytes and gigabytes of video, audio and digital stills I have—at least for now. Log to those stories (leaving out the bits that don’t support those pieces). I can always return to the original material later as time allows.

This may be easier said than done. Every time I go through the material I see more avenues to explore. Plus I feel such a sense of responsibility to the folks who shared so much of their lives with me. But you can’t do everything at once.

So I have been back at logging video with renewed vigor and once again combing through the photos Eileen took. Have also hired a journalism student for help with logging some of the audio. Will probably focus on a story about malaria and another about nurses’ daily challenges and successes at just one of the several hospitals I visited in Malawi.

One thing is for sure, the pregnant woman's lament has got to find a home in there somewhere.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Friday Links: Twitter, Aspirin, Chinese Teflon

Twittering and micro-blogging for public health. (University of Michigan Libraries)

Soon all aspirin will be made in China
. Acetaminophen, too. (NY Times)

High levels of toxic Teflon precursor found in Chinese workers at a factory that had been open only one year. (Charleston Gazette via the Pump Handle)

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting in USA

Everything points to an historic voter turnout. Just over 60% of eligible voters went to the polls in 2004--the highest number since 1968. News reports show we're on track to beat that figure.

I showed up at my voting place in New York City this morning at 6:08 AM and didn't leave until 40 minutes later. That's me in the picture getting ready to step behind the curtain to vote.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Mapping New York's Rats

High-tech approach to an age-old problem. New York City has just launched an interactive rat map online.

Update: A reader has pointed me to this book by Robert Sullivan, which has a cover of a map of Manhattan in the shape of a rat.

Further update: My story about GIS-mapping of NYC's rats and going on rat patrol in the Bronx is up on Time.com.

And now the rat map video is up as well. You can read some behind-the-scenes stuff here.

A Trio of Aid Scandals in the News

There has been a trio of aid scandals in the news the past few days:

The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria accuses Robert Mugabe's government of diverting $7.3 million in money meant to fight disease in Zimbabwe.

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation of Michigan says several hundred thousand dollars is missing from its programs in southern Africa and is now suspending operations there, pending an investigation and restructuring by former U.S. Ambassador to South Africa James A. Joseph.

The bribery trial of a former Costa Rican president begins today. Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (1990-1994) and eight others are accused of taking bribes as a part of a $39.5 million Finnish deal to sell medical equipment to the Costa Rican health services. For an English language summary of the Costa Rican scandal, click here.

I'm told the scandal first came to light after reporters from the Costa Rican daily newspaper La Nacion noticed one of the key players was living way above the modest means his government salary would normally afford.