Friday, November 14, 2008

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, and asking for some clarification, it seemed like a good idea.

At first I was a bit confused—partly because Lalleman’s main site——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 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

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?

No comments: