What is swine ‘flu?

An absolutely fascinating piece on swine ‘flu by Robin Goad. UK internet searches for swine flu increased by 58 fold last week. Now here’s the question. As a very large number of click throughs for swine flu went to the wikipedia page, should public health officials spend time ensuring that the page is accurate and up to date? If not, should our content editors at DirectGov and NHS Direct be working with Wikipedians to make sure that wikipedia is providing the very best health care advice on how do deal with the H1N1 virus? Your views greatly appreciated.

30 comments ↓

#1 Ciaran on 05.06.09 at 4:35 pm

I think they should work on it, in the sense that they should be seeking to ensure the public are as well informed as they should be. The best way to do that, though, might be to work with senior editors to ensure that the usual internet conspiracy freakery doesn’t get in the way of getting out the facts: what matters is what works, I guess.

#2 Chris Gilmour on 05.06.09 at 4:37 pm

Is there any evidence to suggest that public health officials, DirectGov and NHS Direct have more accurate, up to date and authorative information than wikipedia?

#3 paul canning on 05.06.09 at 4:39 pm

Of course they should as it’s a major info source.

The only issue would be self-promotion and editing falsely.

That’s what got people into trouble in the past http://paulcanning.blogspot.com/2007/08/those-wikipedia-edits-in-full.html

#4 thelocalgovernmentofficer on 05.06.09 at 4:49 pm

Should they? Probably – but in practice it wouldn’t work. Wikipedia has a policy of not allowing articles to contain medical advice (I presume because they’re scared of being sued if it’s wrong!) so any such edts would get deleted.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/What_wp_is_not#Wikipedia_is_not_a_manual.2C_guidebook.2C_or_textbook

#5 IanVisits on 05.06.09 at 4:54 pm

When government departments try editing Wikipedia articles, it invariably leads to unfortunate news headlines.

Steer well clear.

#6 Simon McManus on 05.06.09 at 4:54 pm

Yes, providing they adhere to the rules and regulations of the wiki and participate in the conversations that go on around their edits.

Contributions should come from individuals on behalf of the Government.

Official sources (DirectGov/NHS) are also necessary but in such situations a misleading Wikipedia entry could be potentially dangerous.

#7 grumpy old man on 05.06.09 at 5:13 pm

Tom. The last thing we need is the hiring of yet another jobsworth, working on a website which is open to anyone to change information and duplicating effort.

Why not do it the simple way? Negotiate with Wiki to put an uneditable message directing people to the NHS website? I realise that this approach would minimise wasting, sorry investing, taxpayers money, but it cuts down the possibility of misleading information reaching the electorate.

#8 Guido Fawkes on 05.06.09 at 5:17 pm

Any idea how searches for “Smeargate” increased?

#9 Ross Ferguson on 05.06.09 at 5:22 pm

Wikipedia is one of the large/popular/influential online forums that we are keeping tabs on.

It’s not an ‘official’ dashboard but we have set up http://www.netvibes.com/coi#Swine_Flu to stay in touch with online conversations.

It’s just a basic collection of feeds but it’s very useful for spotting trends, developing issues, experiences and reactions.

I’m always keen to hear about feeds to consider for inclusion.

#10 Ross Ferguson on 05.06.09 at 5:26 pm

Whether UK health officials should be checking the page for accuracy, my personal view is that there is value in doing so and that the reviews should be led by policy officials rather than those in a communications role because the page seems to lean toward clinical information.

#11 Paul Battley on 05.06.09 at 6:14 pm

That’s a great question. Yes, they should, I think.

If a significant number of people are obtaining their facts from Wikipedia, it’s of great benefit if the information they find is accurate and timely. And the way to contribute to Wikipedia is by editing it and by monitoring others’ edits. It’s part of contributing to public health.

#12 danvers on 05.06.09 at 6:48 pm

Good point, but surely the question should be framed slightly differently, as in how should a public information campaign be run? If that’s the question, then surely it makes sense to put the correct information wherever the public are likely to read it and, where appropriate, correct inaccurate information.

What there shouldn’t be is some demarcation of territory between content editors in a world where the internet is being written by its users.

#13 Peter Jordan on 05.06.09 at 8:47 pm

Search engines like Wikipedia. See “Google favors Wikipedia” http://www.micropersuasion.com/2006/11/study_finds_goo.html. Just checked now and Wikipedia is the top ‘organic’ result on Google, Yahoo and Ask.

Of course, the public sector has a duty to ensure citizens have easy access to authoritative/official information. So that points to a ‘yes’ – engage.

But, Wikipedia is an international source, so would it be appropriate for a particular country to engage?

Also there’s the point that many may value an ‘independent’ source of info.

May be adding links to public sector info is a way forward.

#14 Gary Elsby on 05.07.09 at 8:08 am

Maybe an alteration to the term ‘Spanish flu’, which kiled 18 Million people in 1918-19, to the correct term USA Flu would be appropriate too.

Flu comes in three waves with the next one (H1N1)coming in August/September possibly causing many deaths, with another slower emergence a few Months later.

Person to person infection causes an incubation pool and this causes the problem.

#15 Chris on 05.07.09 at 9:23 am

Should we not also be asking: Why is that people prefer the article on Wikipedia to whatever sources of information the NHS has made available elsewhere? Do people trust Wikipedia more than they trust the NHS? Are they simply looking for a second opinion? Does the NHS information fare poorly in a Google search (as a result of poor SEO, for example)? Once they understand the answer to those questions, I think they will be in a better position to know how to respond.

#16 The Red Rocket on 05.07.09 at 9:27 am

I don’t see why health officials shouldn’t – they just need training in how Wikipedia works, both from understanding it technically and the spirit in which it should be edited.

More importantly, they should include a link to their own guidelines, as a lot of people treat Wikipedia as Gospel and being an open encyclopedia still has the potential for errors.

#17 Steve Scott on 05.07.09 at 4:40 pm

Tom, I rang up NHS Direct for information about swine flu and all I got was crackling.

#18 Robert on 05.07.09 at 5:54 pm

The key thing here is transparency.

The NHS department or agency that is responsible for ensuring that the public has accurate and up-to-date information should make sure the Wikipedia page is correct.

Any edits should be made by a logged in user, with a username and profile that identifies them as an NHS employee.

That agency (whichever it is) should also announce that they’ve done this on their own blog/website. They could even press release if they wanted.

This method would be the perfect collaboration between government and user-generated Internet. It ensures that there is no duplication of labour, and few moments spend leaving an overt trail as to who has made the edits, should actually increase trust in the information, and the agency that provides it.

#19 Tim Vickers on 05.10.09 at 5:22 pm

This question was recently addressed in a study that I was a co-author on

http://cbs11tv.com/consumer/Doctors.Wikipedia.Entries.2.998131.html

The main conclusion of our study was that people do indeed use Wikipedia as a source of medical information, due to the prominence of the site.

However, this doesn’t mean that Wikipedia should aim to replace offical sites – that is not what it aims to do. Instead this site aims to provide a broad introduction to more specialised sources of information and highlight particularly useful and reliable websites.

Since our aims are compatible, and experts are very useful in helping to maintain and improve articles, I would welcome people working for NHS as Wikipedia editors Indeed, there are several that I know who do this already!

#20 Bob Deed on 05.10.09 at 9:21 pm

Yes.

And why can’t the public sector use wikis to help fight the pandemic threat?

In the US there has been Flu Wikie for some time http://www.fluwikie.com/

#21 Mo on 05.11.09 at 11:25 am

Any information provided has to have proper citations anyway, and it’s worth bearing in mind the international nature of both Wikipedia and Swine ’Flu itself.

The most “Wikipedian” way of approaching this is to have an article entitled something like “Public health information” containing links to various government’s sites; people from other countries can then fill in the blanks where appropriate.

Then, add a link to that article from the Swine Influenza and 2009 swine flu outbreak pages with the text as something along the lines of “In light of the World Health Organisation’s classification of Swine Influenza as an imminent pandemic, people should seek advice from [public health officials] on how best to avoid and reduce the spread of infection.” It wouldn’t hurt to stick it in one of the “alert” boxes you often see at the top of pages.

#22 Mo on 05.11.09 at 11:50 am

In fact:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Health_Information

#23 Nick Fraser on 05.11.09 at 2:09 pm

I almost always use Wikipedia as a first port of call on a topic (before exploring it in more detail elsewhere if I feel the need). The site ranks high in most Google queries and so is exceptionally accessible. Much more so than most UK government sources of information

Given that large numbers of the UK use Wikipedia are also likely to use the site to glean information on topics such as pandemics, terrorist attacks, etc. I think it ought to be the responsibility of government departments to ensure that the information that Wikipedia (and a small number of other sites) contain is as accurate as possible.

Indeed, in the case of future threats to public health and safety, erroneous information on popular government websites might well actually damage or derail departments’ efforts, so there is a clear public interest in engaging in this kind of activity.

Citations from reputable sources, such as government experts add credibility and should be encouraged.

Another advantage of Wikipedia (not shared by any government sites I am aware of), is that article changes are recorded in an auditable trail, which the user can access and view.

If government officials are to engage like this, I would like to see them editing as registered users rather than as anonymous editors, and for their user page to indicate such that they are editing in the capacity of civil servant or other public capacity (there could even be a formalised UK government standard for presenting this ‘government editor’ ID to the public).

#24 Nick Fraser on 05.11.09 at 2:12 pm

I almost always use Wikipedia as a first port of call on a topic (before exploring it in more detail elsewhere if I feel the need). The site ranks high in most Google queries and so is exceptionally accessible. Much more so than most UK government sources of information.

Given that large numbers of people are likely to use Wikipedia to glean information on topics such as pandemics, terrorist attacks, etc. I think it ought to be the responsibility of government departments to ensure that the information that Wikipedia (and a small number of other sites) contain is as accurate as possible.

Indeed, in the case of future threats to public health and safety, erroneous information on popular websites might well actually damage or derail departments’ efforts, so there is a clear public interest in engaging in this kind of activity.

Citations from reputable sources, such as government experts add credibility and should be encouraged.

Another advantage of Wikipedia (not shared by any government sites I am aware of), is that article changes are recorded in an auditable trail, which the user can access and view.

If government officials are to engage like this, I would like to see them editing as registered users rather than as anonymous editors, and for their user page to indicate such that they are editing in the capacity of civil servant or other public capacity (there could even be a formalised UK government standard for presenting this ‘government editor’ ID to the public).

#25 heat press on 05.14.09 at 3:54 pm

Well the media has been really quiet about this lately and it makes one wonder if all danger has passed. Is this outbreak a derious threat or not? We are not, are not being informed. My personnal take is that the virus is not as virulent/dangerous as the media would have us believe some weeks ago.

#26 David Ruben on 05.14.09 at 8:19 pm

Wikipedia should not be “maintained” by governments, organisations or companies. Relevant polices are of ‘Conflict of Interest’ and ‘No Original Research’ – in essence an official (just as for an individual) cannot add something because of their private knowledge, instead material has to be verified by citing a reliable source and those in official positions are probably too close to have a balanced sense of which sources to select from. For a government official to add details of, say what the number of cases is going to be announced later in the day would be wholly inappropriate and where it to persist, after advising the user, result in their block for disrupting the work of other editors checking on the stated facts. Now I see no issue for a sentence of “the UK government has stated there have been a total of x cases[1]” for the value of x to be updated as the webpage [1] is amended, but maintaining the ‘public health message’ as a means of crowd control by perhaps stating “the UK policies have the situation under control” is a subjective one needing independent secondary source and any civil servant editing in an official capacity will deservedly get cut down, and bring the more mundane work of others into disrepute (and there is enough sense of corruption and dishonesty with UK government and MPs at the present for everyone to wish that being whiter than white should be current motto).

So whilst Wikipedia welcomes specialists (there are far too few), in general if there is a possibility of a conflict of interest then the user should restrict themselves to article talk page commentary & suggestions, and let independent editors decide whether & how to update the page. But a concerted effort amongst several civil servants to maintain a specific position (aka “spin”) risks being seen as sockpuppetry/meatpuppet, for which the response risks block to all involved… we need the experts, but they must be open and careful how they interact :-)

#27 Michael Laurent on 05.14.09 at 11:25 pm

We’ve recently finished a scientific study on the potential of Wikipedia for public health promotion, and we’ve compared it to NHS Direct. The study was published in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association. Abstract available at http://www.jamia.org/cgi/content/abstract/M3059v1 . I think this should be useful background information to inform your proposal.

#28 Michael Laurent on 05.14.09 at 11:33 pm

Wikipedia’s medical pages consistently link to the US medical encyclopedia MedlinePlus, but not to NHS Direct Online. Inconsistent formatting of NHS Direct Online entries is a practical hindrance, otherwise it would have been done long ago and almost all medical pages would link to UK governmental material. You could collaborate on providing us with a consistent linking format so we can easily linkout to NHS Direct resources.

#29 Erik on 05.15.09 at 9:20 pm

At least we know we’re ok if a shark flu hits:
http://5secondfilms.com/

#30 Martin Cole on 05.21.09 at 8:04 pm

Relax, it is only proving life-threatening in developed countries for those recently attending the Parliaments in Strasbourg and Westminster when representing any one of the three main parties – next up-date 7th June !

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