An interesting thread keeps popping up in The Globe's reporting on H1N1. As you examine the efforts of the federal and provincial governments to co-ordinate their response to the crisis only one thing appears to be more rare than the vaccine itself: information.
For example, on Nov. 11, Patrick Brethour reported that "The premiers resolved to press the federal government to give them more timely information on vaccine supplies during their own conference call last Friday. Health officials across Canada have expressed frustration that Ottawa has been slow to inform them about how much vaccine provinces and territories will get each week."
And of course, it isn't just the provinces complaining about the feds. The feds are similarly complaining about the vaccine suppliers. In response to an unforeseen and last-minute vaccine shortage by GlaxoSmithKlein (a manufacturer of the vaccine), David Butler-Jones, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, acknowledged in The Globe on Oct. 31 that "what I know today is not what I knew yesterday morning. And tomorrow I may find out something new."
For those of you who are wondering what this shortage of information reminds you of, the answer is simple: life before the Internet. Here, in the digital age, we continue to treat the Public Health Officer like a town crier, waiting for him to share how much vaccine the country is going to receive. And the government is treating GSK like a 20th century industrial manufacturer you would bill with a paper invoice.
This in an era of just-in-time delivery, radio-frequency identification chips and a FedEx website that lets me track packages from my home computer. We could resolve this information shortage quite simply by insisting the vaccine suppliers publish a website or data feed, updated hourly or daily, of the vaccine production pipeline, delivery schedule and inventory. That way, if there is a sudden change in the delivery amount the press, health officials or any average citizen could instantly know and plan accordingly. Conversely, the government of Canada could publish its inventory and the process it uses to allocate it to the provinces online for anyone to see. Using this data, local health authorities could calculate how much vaccine they can expect without having to talk to the feds at all. Time and energy would be saved by everyone.
Better still, no more conference calls with the premiers sitting around complaining to the Prime Minister about a lack of information. By insisting on open data - that is sharing the data and information relating to the vaccine supply publicly - the government could both improve transparency, reduce transaction costs and greatly facilitate co-ordination between the various ministries and levels of government. No more waiting for that next meeting or an email from the Chief Public Health Officer to get an update on how much vaccine to expect - just pop online and take a look for yourself.
As Doug Sebastien over at GC2.0 has noted, the federal government has done an excellent job informing the Canadian public about the need to get vaccinated, including using social media like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube videos. Indeed, they were so successful they helped contribute to the current vaccine shortage. To ensure we respond to the next crisis successfully, however, we need more than a citizen-centric social media strategy. We need a social media and open data strategy that ensures our governments communicate effectively with one another.
David Eaves is a public-policy entrepreneur, open government activist and negotiation expert based in Vancouver
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