May 3

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

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.

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Comments: 7

  JesterXL [05.03.06 12:14 PM]

I think one of the coolest examples in history regarding this was the use of Flashcom (aka Flash Media Server) by a Hong Kong University during the SARS outbreak.

  Sam Rose [05.03.06 01:29 PM]

I wrote about this here:

I agree with you that Scenario Planning (a subset of Futures Studies and Foresight) is worth pursuing.

  B.K. DeLong [05.03.06 03:11 PM]

I think one of the things the tech industry needs to take into account is how many people will be unable to work due to workforce shortages. I've heard businesses should plan for between a 25 - 40% reduction in their employees during a pandemic.

While large companies like IBM claim to have 40% of their global workforce out each day, and that other employees can work from home, what happens when those who keep our Net connectivity up around the country become ill and the system goes down?

  Fergus Burns [05.03.06 04:11 PM]

Hi Tim

We met briefly at Web2.0 [we were the "Irish" guys]

We've done some work with the Irish Department of Health re: Emergency Planning Initiatives - using RSS at the core of the communications platform.

See for summary on project


  Patrick Tufts [05.05.06 07:51 AM]

It's disturbing to have to plan for scenarious like this, even if they don't come about.

That said, it's a good time to sign up for a chat client and get used to using it for work-related communication. It's also a good idea to get your co-workers on a compatible chat network.

Trillian is one of my favorite chat clients for Windows because it works with multiple chat systems.

  Adam Brown [05.06.06 10:12 AM]

Ont thing that worries me is that the IT infrastructure that many businesses have may not be able to support a sudden transition from employees being physically onsite to working from home. It's also unknown how the internet providers will be able to handle the load.

  Sam Finkel [05.08.06 01:47 PM]

Wall Street, which makes its living betting on what the future may look like, has been busy concocting what-if scenarios, handicapping winning and losing stock sectors, and educating clients in the science of bird flu. Citigroup recently sent clients a comprehensive 46-page report on bird flu that includes a brief history of the virus, risk factors and stock picks. The report was compiled by stock strategists, economists, government policy experts, epidemiologists and currency analysts from Europe, Japan, Australia and the USA.

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