Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Flu Wiki

Sometime next week (we hope) three collaborating bloggers (Revere of Effect Measure, Melanie Mattson of Just a Bump in the Beltway, and demfromct of The Next Hurrah) plan to launch a new experiment in public health. Many knowledgeable people believe a serious pandemic from avian influenza is possible in the near future. In a highly interconnected world, the consequences could be grave, with widespread illness and mortality accompanied by major stress on the social system in almost every affected locality. Few, if any, national governmental authorities have prepared for this, despite adequate warning.

Because such an event would be geographically widespread it will leave each local area to cope with and solve problems on their own. In such a circumstance, any preparation, however limited, can save lives and suffering. And to make these local preparations, knowledge is not only empowering, but essential. Rather than leave these preparations solely to governmental authorities and rather than restrict knowledge to designated "experts," both of whom have failed to prepare adequately, it is necessary to begin to undertake many needed tasks ourselves. The Flu Wiki is our first try at a mechanism to facilitate this.

Many readers of this site know what a wiki is. But probably many more don't. Here is one description, taken from the site that makes the software engine we plan to use (pmwiki):
WikiWikiWeb is an "open-editing" system where the emphasis is on the authoring and collaboration of documents rather than the simple browsing or viewing of them. The name "wiki" is based on the Hawaiian term "wiki wiki", meaning "quick" or "super-fast". The basic concept of a WikiWikiWeb (or "wiki") is that (almost) anyone can edit any page. While at first this sounds like a recipe for complete anarchy, the truth is that sites using this system have developed surprisingly complex and rich communities for online collaboration and communication. Yes, it's possible for someone to go and destroy everything on a page, but it doesn't seem to happen often. And, many systems (including this one) have built-in mechanisms to restore content that has been defaced or destroyed.

The point of the system is to simply make it as quick, easy and rewarding as possible to create or edit online content.

Using any standard Web browser, a person can edit (almost) any page on the system using relatively simple TextFormattingRules. [In fact it's] not even necessary to learn the Text Formatting Rules; others will often come in and reformat things for you. After all, anyone can edit!
The most famous example of a wiki is the huge free encyclopedia, Wikipedia. Our intention is not to compete with wikipedia, but instead establish a venue for knowledge compilation and generation relevant to epidemic avian influenza. How it will evolve and be configured will be determined by its contributors (you!), but we are hoping eventually to have city, region and country specific sections, entries explaining important elements of biology and drug actions, anticipation of consequences and solutions for them, and many other things beyond our imaginations but within the ken of our collective intelligence.