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Fight Global Pandemics (Or At Least Find a Good Excuse When You’re Playing Hooky)

If a genie came out of a bottle and gave me the choice between magically doing away with global warming or getting rid of the threat of global pandemics, I think I would choose the latter. I am probably in the minority on this one, but I think a pandemic might be the graver threat. A few years ago I even created a stash of food and water in my basement so that if a pandemic hit, my family could stay inside for a month or two until things got sorted out. I suppose it is time to restock the basement … we’ve used up most of the water in the family fish tank and the food is probably pretty stale.

What can we do to fight global pandemics? The single most powerful tool we have is probably the internet. Pandemics tend to start in remote locations. What we need is a way to extract the information from those places quickly to get a head start on keeping the epidemic tamed. The formal networks like the CDC do not seem to work all that well.

Larry Brilliant has just such a plan in mind. Brilliant won the coveted TED prize which allows the recipient to make three wishes that the TED community then helps to bring into reality. Brilliant’s plan, described in this TED video, is to devise a system that will crawl the internet looking for early clues that a pandemic might be starting. Last year he became head of Google’s non-profit arm. Could there be a better match?

I have not yet heard anything about progress towards achieving his goals. Perhaps a blog reader has an update to share?

In the meantime, I guess we will have to be content with something far less lofty:, which allows people who are sick to post their illnesses and lets others search by zip code to see what people in their area have caught. The amazing thing to me is that sick people actually post. When I’m sick, I might go onto Google to try to figure out what is wrong with me. I doubt, however, that I would want to bother to go tell that I feel awful. Certainly if I was about to die from the bird flu, it would not be top of mind.

Maybe I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the best use of the site is to figure out a credible excuse if you want to play hooky from work. Log onto the site, see what is going around in your area, and then tell the boss that it’s what you’ve got.

(Hat tip to Hunter Walk.)