Wednesday, March 15, 2006

What is Effect Measure all about? Part I.

Effect Measure has been soldiering along seven days a week since late in 2004 and we are coming up on post number 1000 soon. In that time our readership has grown substantially (it now averages several thousand a day), many attracted here by our extensive coverage of bird flu.

But this isn't a bird flu blog. It's a public health blog and that means it is also a political blog. The Reveres thought it was time to re-emphasize that point for our new readership. If what we say politically makes it more attractive to you, we are glad. If the reverse, we regret it but we are committed to our original goals.

As our masthead says, this is a progressive public health blog. "Progressive" is one of those code words many take as synonymous with "left wing," and in some ways it isn't a bad approximation. But it is only an approximation because what counts as left leaning these days is both vague and shifting. It doesn't mean we are liberal Democrats or Trotskyites or any of a variety of other partisan and sectarian labels. We have been severely critical of many Democrats and (we hope) merciless on Republicans. We tend to approve more of Democrats, true, when they aren't being cowardly and Republican, like Joe Lieberman. But that's not our main concern. Our main concern is public health.

Public health has the word "public" in it. It is by its nature political and we are political as a consequence. We make no apologies for this. We interpret public health broadly to take in all those cooperative activities done for the health, well-being and fulfillment of our communities. While we are writing for our colleagues in public health, we include as colleagues many people in walks of life or with personal commitments not ordinarily considered public health workers. Hotel and restaurant workers, at all levels, for example, because they have expertise in caring for and feeding people who might otherwise have no shelter or prepared food. "Hotel" and "hospital" are words with a common root, places where shelter was provided for travelers, strangers and the sick. Likewise teachers, sanitation workers, water utility workers, and many others, are all engaged in tasks that can provide for the common good. In a crisis we will all need each other's help and each other's expertise.

We also include under the heading of public health matters others don't associate with our profession, like war and peace, for example, or the effects of malignant social institutions like organized religion. We have elsewhere explained why (here and subsequent linked posts) and we won't repeat it here. Suffice it to say this is not a faith-based blog. In short, for us, "public health" is more an attitude than a specific set of disciplines. But we are public health professionals in the strictest sense, too, having spent more than forty years in medicine and public health and with substantial and continuing professional experience as teachers, researchers and advisors to public bodies. It is because we have public lives we use the common signature, Revere, to allow the greatest degree of freedom of expression.

Here is part of one of our earliest posts (November 26, 2004) on what we were about when we started this public health blog:
There is a reasonable commitment related to maintaining a blog. Whether the maintainer is a person or a group/community, it has to have a point of view or opinions you feel worthwhile enough to share with others. If you don't want to share them you may as well keep a private journal. And if the opinions are essentially conventional wisdom there is no need to share them. They are already available. In addition, since most "writing is thinking" committing opinions to writing helps clarify them, refine them and, for others, making explicit and explaining them and possibly persuading some in the audience.

But all the advice I see on this subject emphasizes that the level of commitment is such that tailoring posts to "build an audience" or appeal to as many people as possible is a bad strategy. Blog editors express themselves by what they write and (importantly) by what they link to. The personality of a blog (as opposed to an electronic magazine, say) is directly related to what the links are and the voice that is used to put them in context. But just collecting a bunch of "public health" links (of which there are probably hundreds or thousands of candidates, daily) isn't either that interesting or that useful. Anyone can use a free news aggregator. . . . So to make this work you need to link to and comment on things that truly interest you or the community. Without that, I think the effort is eventually doomed. With it, it will evolve and prosper. The Weblog Handbook quotes Cyril Connolly as saying, "Better to write for yourself and have no public than to write for the public and have no self." Seems like good political, as well as personal, advice . . . .

As regards focus/objective, it is already narrowed down quite a bit to public health concerns, not a family journal, election politics or food, to take common examples of blog subjects. But that still leaves a lot of territory and prompts the original question, "To what effect?"

Here are some functions I think a blog can fulfill:

• Filter information from the web and elsewhere pertinent to our point of view and of use and interest to the public health community;
• Provide context for that information;
• Provide alternate points of view (challenging the conventional wisdom or the unspoken assumptions that get in the way of finding "out of the box" solutions);
• Encourage argument, examination and evaluation of important issues for the purpose of fashioning a coherent point of view that can be framed and efficiently and effectively communicated;
• Accrue an audience specifically interested and attuned to that point of view, which may be small, but if coordinated can exert significant influence and leadership.
We've split these reflecitons into two parts. Next time, some of our political outlook.