Online collaboration doesn’t happen by magic


Blogger on global health issues, Christine Gorman, was researching patent issues around “Plumpy’nut,” an easy-to-make peanut-based food used to effectively treat malnutrition. (In brief, there are concerns about whether the patent is preventing some who need it from getting it, and even questions about whether the patent is valid.)

Gorman decided to try a collaborative approach – but as many others have found, getting concrete contributions is a challenge:

Online collaboration may be the wave of the future but it’s not so easy to convince people to do it…

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.

via Global Health Report: What Plumpy’Nut Taught Me.

The biggest part of online collaboration is making a start, putting it out there, and making it open for people to use. It’s hard to say when results will come – but sharing and practicing openness creates the possibility.

Blogs on tech for global health


Three good blogs on global health – the first two with a tech focus (including open source and open hardware):

  1. Global Health Ideas. Posts include this one on 7 steps for building open hardware for global health.
  2. David Van Sickle – solid, serious stuff.
  3.’s Global Health blog – by Alanna Shaikh, who also blogs on “Examining international development” (Blood and Milk), through whose Twitter account I found the first two on development.

Behind the Headlines


Health headlines. Promises of cures for cancers (sometimes even a cure for “cancer”, which makes little sense as cancer refers to many diseases). Diets. Fitness. Weight loss. Heart health. The latest discovery by scientists, often using similar language to the opposite claim made not so long ago in the media.

New stories every day. A deluge of data, often unreliable data, that distracts us from the much harder search for actual knowledge.

This is the nature of the mass media – careful analysis isn’t as captivating as the appearance of new breakthroughs every day, and isn’t cost-effective from a media perspective. But as we become more media savvy, we question the media, and hopefully we turn to more reliable sources.

Here’s a very promising source of intelligent news about health: Behind the Headlines. It takes health headlines and discusses the evidence that does or does not exist for the headline. Fantastic.

Aside from being more informative about the individual cases, this also introduces critical thinking into the reporting and consumption of health news. The reader is presented with a framework through which each story is analyzed. Rather than a simple “Scientists have discovered that…”, a claim made must hold up to examination. Being told what to believe by someone in a white coat is replaced by sound argument and research. This is good.

Health professionals and those interested in the subject, please check it out and let us know what your assessment

Getting behind the noise on a wiki

Fellew wikiholics, how do we best apply this kind of critical analysis in a wiki? In our case, we deal with knowledge about global public health, international development, and sustainability, which are also contentious areas – this looks similar enough. It’s just a matter of applying it in the wiki world. Some of the principles have been worked out on Wikipedia – others will have to evolve on Appropedia to suit the different goals and guidelines, including more room for analysis. It seems to me that a community of informed, thinking people, a guideline for page structure and some editing tools will be the starting point for this evolution.

“Behind the Headlines” is provided by the NHS Knowledge Service in Britain. Many thanks to the British taxpayer – if it fulfills its promises, this is money very well spent.