The Internet’s Potential to Function as a Global Digital Immune System

Hopefully you have enjoyed some time off with your loved ones and are regenerating in readiness for all that 2022 will bring. I’m embracing a slower paced end of the year. Enjoying time away from my computer, out in the gloriously invigorating cold. Spending happy hours in my kitchen baking and cooking with friends and family. And I’m happy just reading, seeing everyone and petting my cat.    

Today’s topics:

– When autopilot is no longer an option – on weariness and how to overcome it

– The internet’s potential to function as a global digital immune system 

– Communicating Science – the potential of dynamic graphs

– Fast track to freedom – ceding the illusion of control

When autopilot is no longer an option – on weariness and how to overcome it

Many of us feel it. A weariness, deeper than the normal tiredness of winter. And nothing like the happy tiredness after a job well done, or a snowball fight. On a recent trip to Germany, I missed a train connection. In normal times this would not be an issue. However, these are not normal times, and I was surprised at how upset I was. From conversations with many colleagues, clients, and friends I realise I am not alone. 

I suspect that a large part of the problem is that our brains have a COVID programme constantly running in the background, which is draining resource. Gone the simple pleasure of functioning on autopilot. Erstwhile mundane activities like going to the shops, to a restaurant or on a short train trip, now require the type of planning reserved, in the past, for longer trips to the Amazon, or up a mountain. Nowadays, not only do I need to remember to bring a mask. I also need to check what rules I am subject to. These are not uniform between regions or countries, and they change, apparently arbitrarily, from day to day.  

For example, in Switzerland I need a COVID certificate plus an ID to enter a restaurant. For a business trip to Germany, I have to fill in confusing registration forms and research what level of threat I currently pose to my German neighbours. In addition, I discover, that while I can stay in a hotel, and have breakfast there, I cannot have dinner in a restaurant without a vaccination certificate plus an additional recent test. Only a month prior to my trip to Germany, at the beginning of November, I was in London. Nobody wore a mask. There were no restrictions on entering shops, cinemas, or restaurants. Little social distancing. No certificate. Yes, that was before Omicron descended on the world from South Africa. Only, of course, it didn’t descend on the world from South Africa. It was just identified there. 

Not only do the rules change frequently, they also often defy logic: recent Swiss guidelines required mask wearing for team sports events but not for choir practice. The governments appear lost. 

So, what can we do? First, accept that which we cannot currently change. Second, understand that looking after our own wellbeing is a priority and not a luxury, because to lead others and to manage ourselves we need inner resources. Third, prioritise workloads and streamline projects for maximum impact not maximum effort. Fourth, take the time to celebrate small things, be forgiving and accepting of ourselves and others. 

The internet’s potential to function as a global digital immune system 

I used to love the internet. Back in the days before I was asked multiple times a day how I would like to be tracked. Before pop-up ads. Before CAPTCHA. And before the need to access multiple devices, every time I want to login to an account, for security purposes. Mostly I loved it because I had access to information. Now I still have access to information, but it comes with a: proceed with caution warning.

However, while the net feeds me, I also feed the net. And that information is generally used to identify what I am willing to spend my money on. However, this year I attended a talk on how the internet could function as a global digital immune system. What if there were a system in place to oversee infectious disease related internet searches that triggered an alert when the frequency of certain topics within a certain geographic location crossed a predefined threshold? For example, how frequently the following search terms are entered: fever + loss of sense of taste and smell.  Or flu + gastrointestinal symptoms + headache, etc. Combining this type of search data with location data could provide interesting insights and potentially function as an early warning system. Or at the very least provide information on spread. 

The fact that this was not done, illustrates something we see in pharma every day. The data is there, but we need to identify the questions we want answered. Collecting data is comparatively simple. Understanding how to interrogate it and what insights might be interesting is where the real work comes in. 

On the topic of interrogating medical symptom searches, of course, if you don’t know what you are looking for, it is not easy to find. However, likely candidates for future pandemics and sites of origin are known, symptoms of infectious disease have many commonalities, and probable virus specific symptoms could potentially be predicted from experience with other members of the same virus family.  

For an overview of zoonotic viruses, check out Zover. To watch the talk by Dr. Divya Chander click on the following link: “leveraging exponential technologies and data for integrative pandemic resilience”. 

Communicating Science – the potential of dynamic graphs

Typically, scientific data is shared in tables and static graphs. While we have moved from paper-based formats to digital formats, we are still frequently using static images to communicate the science. However, we now have the option to use dynamic images. Recently, a potential collaborator shared an innovative way of visualising data by sharing an approach from the study “Efficacy and safety of ixekizumab in patients with plaque psoriasis across different degrees of disease severity: results from UNCOVER-2 and UNCOVER-3”, which was funded by Eli Lilly. You can view the publication and the data visualisation here. Beyond being part of the published data set, the dynamic chart was used at a conference booth and was met with great interest by physicians. I was fascinated by the approach, and I suspect you will be too. Let me know what you think. 

Fast track to freedom – ceding the illusion of control

In a previous newsletter I shared that I had to decide to put my cat down. It’s now been 6 weeks and I still miss him. Saying goodbye was hard. Having to make the decision was hard. As a doctor, I always found the knowledge that a patient’s life span is influenced by physical considerations as well as by sheer willpower and other factors, outside my control, for example, because they are waiting for a daughter to arrive from New Zealand so they can say goodbye, or they want to celebrate one last Christmas, very liberating. There is a mystery around birth and death. And while we can facilitate both, and influence both, ultimately, sometimes things happen, that we didn’t predict. And that is part of the beauty and mystery of being human. 

In the past year, I have come to accept that my sphere of influence is in general much more limited than I liked to believe in the past. The pandemic has been a good teacher. Funnily enough, instead of being upset, I have found the insight very liberating. Accepting that there is much I cannot influence, frees me from taking responsibility where in the past I would have felt responsible. In a practical example: a very dedicated project manager was concerned that she would fail to deliver a project with an international team of individuals. Her interpretation was, “If we don’t deliver the project to the timelines, then that makes me a terrible project manager.” However, the truth of the matter is, we are responsible for our own actions and our own areas of influence. We cannot control other people and we are not responsible for their actions. Putting our focus on what we are responsible for, frees up our resources to do that well and leaves others to own their responsibilities.

If you are facing a complex challenge and would like a sounding board or you’d like some help to implement globally, contact me for a chat. 

Photo Credit: Photo by Thomas Millot on Unsplash