How to prepare for a pandemic

As I envision the positive future of Web 2.0 and all the other millenial visions that Nick Carr lampooned last year [my reply], I also wonder about darker scenarios, in which the world goes awry. And I wonder how, as technologists, we may be called upon to apply our expertise to help deal with serious world problems.

In that vein, Derrick Story, managing editor of the O’Reilly Network, just sent out the following alert:

Brian McConnell has just published a three-part series on our Emerging
Telephony site about using IT to help prepare for a possible pandemic.
Besides plenty of good general advice for businesses, schools, and
organizations on how to think about and prepare for such a crisis, one of
the articles provides some very specific and actionable instructions on
how an organization can very cheaply set up a large-scale teleconferencing
system using open source tools (Asterisk and Gizmo). The ability for
companies to do this on their own is relatively new, and I haven’t seen
any other articles detailing it the way Brian does. I highly recommend you take a look at the following pieces:

For SARS Press 1, for Bird Flu Press 2…

Building Your Own Teleconference System with Asterisk and Gizmo

How to Implement Telecommuting in a Hurry

(Another pandemic-related project worth thinking about and possibly contributing to is Larry Brilliant’s Instedd project (International Networked System for Total Early Disease Detection), which focuses on how we can use collective intelligence to spot infectious disease outbreaks before they spread. Declan Butler of Nature has also been working on mapping disease outbreaks onto Google Earth.)

It’s easy to dismiss ideas like these as unnecessarily alarmist. But I’m a big fan of the idea from scenario planning that the goal is not to get the future “right”, but rather to imagine enough challenging eventualities that you build a strategy that is robust in the face of a range of possible futures. A good example are the technologies Brian outlines in his articles. Even if we never need to radically limit face to face contact because of a pandemic, there are enormous benefits to building a robust infrastructure for internet-based conferencing and telecommuting, especially given the low cost of the technologies involved.