Says Janet Ginsburg: "A full year before the CDC reported cases of paralysis in West Nile patients, cases had been reported in veterinary journals in large mammals. Nevermind that humans are, in fact, large mammals, doctors don't have time to read veterinarian journals and vice-versa".
There are similar examples in just about every field, and that's why Ginsburg -- a former BusinessWeek science reporter with extensive experience in covering things like biosurveillance -- has been working with InSTEDD (see this previous post) to imagine a way to cross these silos of expertise and promote cross-disciplinary awareness and collaboration. "Though specialization has led to a greater aggregate knowledge, gaps between disciplines mean missed opportunities and potential dangers", she told me the other day. The answer: the Humanitarian Technology Review (HTR -- not the final name), an attempt to provide experts across a range of fields -- and across the world -- a place to learn about each other's work, and to connect.
If this sounds generic, the fields that the HTR will cover aren't: early disease detection, predictive modeling and simulation, mobile communications, transportation, water and sanitation, green tech, climate change impacts, machine translation, vaccines, crisis management, food security, resilience and recovery, energy, chronic disease, microbiology, just to mention a few.
What connects these fields? The HTR defines technology broadly: "anything and everything that can make a difference". One of the key points is that "disease and disaster are most often viewed as separate issues, and handled by different agencies and specialists". Yet, there is no humanitarian crisis without a health component, or a serious disease outbreak without a humanitarian dimension. Likewise, "most human diseases are zoonotic, meaning they also affect animals; animal and human health are two sides of the same coin. And regional disasters can quickly go global, while global events can have devastating local consequences".
These intersections are increasingly frequent and producing severe impacts. The HTR is an attempt to mix and match ideas and innovations that can lead to better answers. "Some of the most promising developments in the field over the last few years are the result of inspired combinations", is stated in the Review's project documents. For instance:
- lightweight fabric + satellite technology = a cheaper portable satellite dish
- software + cell phones = real-time surveillance for bird flu
- GPS + interactive mapping = real time tracking of fires and floods
- solar panels + refrigerator = reliable field transport for vaccines
- filter + straw = a mobile water purification device
- open source water tech + microfinance = funding for small water projects
- genetic sampling + fast data analysis = identifying a pathogen in hours
The core of the HTR will be an electronic newsletter and website, which will be complemented with videos, blogs, podcasts, downloadable software and tools, translation and mapping programs, etc (plus print and events) -- whatever platform can serve its mission.