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Posts Tagged ‘public health

Life expectancy is a statistical phenomenon. You could still be hit by the proverbial bus tomorrow.”*…

 

Still…

Life expectancy has risen across the U.S. steadily over the last few decades; but the gains are not equally distributed.  Flowing Data illustrates why one might prefer Minnesota to Mississippi: “Life expectancy by state, against the US average.”

* Ray Kurzweil

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As we muse on moving, we might send heart-felt birthday greetings to Willem Einthoven; he was born on this date in 1860.  A physician and physiologist, he introduced a new era in the diagnosis and treatment of diseases of the heart with his invention of the electrocardiograph, for which he was awarded the 1924 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.  His creation became an essential clinical instrument for displaying the electrical properties of the heart– especially useful, of course, in the diagnosis of heart disease.

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Written by LW

May 21, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion”*…

 

It used to be that we’d see a poorly made graph or a data design goof, laugh it up a bit, and then carry on. At some point though — during this past year especially — it grew more difficult to distinguish a visualization snafu from bias and deliberate misinformation.

Of course, lying with statistics has been a thing for a long time, but charts tend to spread far and wide these days. There’s a lot of them. Some don’t tell the truth. Maybe you glance at it and that’s it, but a simple message sticks and builds. Before you know it, Leonardo DiCaprio spins a top on a table and no one cares if it falls or continues to rotate.

So it’s all the more important now to quickly decide if a graph is telling the truth…

Nathan Yau (Flowing Data) provides a very helpful (and very amusing) guide: “How to Spot Visualization Lies.”

* W. Edwards Deming

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As we key our eyes open, we might send healthy birthday greetings to John Snow; he was born on this date in 1813.  A physician and a leader in the adoption of anaesthesia and medical hygiene, he is considered the father of modern epidemiology, in large measure because of his work in tracing the source of a cholera outbreak in Soho, London, in 1854.  His On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (1849) suggested that cholera was a contagious disease easily transmitted by contaminated water. But the widely-held theory was that diseases are caused by bad air led to his idea being ignored.  Then, in London’s 1854 cholera emergency, he painstakingly correlated individual cholera casualties to the water supply they had used in each case.  He then communicated his results with a map that underlined his point, and ended the deadly epidemic by removing the pump handle of the community water pump that he found to be the culprit.

Snow’s map of cholera cases

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His findings inspired fundamental changes in the water and waste systems of London, which led to similar changes in other cities, and a significant improvement in general public health around the world.  His mode of communicating them contributed to the rise of data visualization.

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Written by LW

March 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors”*…

 

Your family tree might contain a few curious revelations. It might alert you to the existence of long-lost third cousins. It might tell you your 10-times-great-grandfather once bought a chunk of Brooklyn. It might reveal that you have royal blood. But when family trees includes millions of people—maybe even tens of millions of people—then we’re beyond the realm of individual stories.

When genealogies get so big, they’re not just the story of a family anymore; they contain the stories of whole countries and, at the risk of sounding grandiose, even all of humanity…

The story of the largest family tree so far found– 13 million people. (And yes, that includes Kevin Bacon.): “What Can You Do With the World’s Largest Family Tree?

* Edmund Burke

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As we ruminate on roots, we might spare a thought for Sara Josephine Baker; she died on this date in 1945. A physician and public health pioneer, she was active especially in the immigrant communities of New York City.  In 1917, she noted that babies born in the United States faced a higher mortality rate than soldiers fighting in World War I, and undertook her fight against the damage that widespread urban poverty and ignorance caused to children, especially newborns.  She founded the Bureau of Child Hygiene after visiting mothers on the lower east side, was appointed assistant to the Commissioner for Public Health of New York City, then headed the city’s Department of Health in Hell’s Kitchen for 25 years.  Among many other initiatives, she set up free milk clinics, licensed midwives, and taught the use of silver nitrate to prevent blindness in newborns.

She is also known for (twice) tracking down Mary Mallon, the infamous index case known as Typhoid Mary.

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“The law of unintended consequences pushes us ceaselessly through the years”*…

 

Much has been said about the ways we expect our oncoming fleet of driverless cars to change the way we live—remaking us all into passengers, rewiring our economy, retooling our views of ownership, and reshaping our cities and roads.

They will also change the way we die. As technology takes the wheel, road deaths due to driver error will begin to diminish. It’s a transformative advancement, but one that comes with consequences in an unexpected place: organ donation…

* Richard Schickel

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As we get to the heart of the matter, we might spare a thought for a wicked bender of English words, James Augustine Aloysius Joyce; he died on this date in 1941.  A poet and novelist best known for Ulysses, he was the preeminent figure in the Modernist avant-garde, and a formative influence on writers as various as (Joyce’s protege) Samuel Becket, Jorge Luis Borges, Salmon Rushdie, and Joesph Campbell.

In 1998, the Modern Library ranked Ulysses No. 1, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man No. 3, and Finnegans Wake No. 77, on its list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.  The next year, Time Magazine named Joyce one of its 100 Most Important People of the 20th century, observing that “Joyce … revolutionized 20th century fiction.”  And illustrating that Joyce’s influence was not confined to the arts: physicist Murray Gell-Mann used the sentence “Three quarks for Muster Mark!” (in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake) as source for the elementary particle he was naming– the quark.

A portrait of the artist as a 38 year old man: the image of Joyce included in a printed subscription order form for the 1921 Paris edition of Ulysses. The image itself dates from 1918,

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Written by LW

January 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Arguably the greatest technological triumph of the century has been the public-health system”*…

 

The car seat: one of the objects that shaped public health

Public health impacts all of us, in every corner of the globe, every day of our lives — not only our health and safety, but also how we live, what we wear, what we eat, what happens to our environment and the stewardship of our planet. For better or worse, these 100 objects have made their mark on public health. Some, such as vaccines, have helped keep us healthy. Others, including cigarettes, have made us sick. Some are surprising (horseshoe crabs?) and others make perfect sense (bicycle helmet). Some are relics from the past (spittoon) and others are products of our digital age (smartphone)…

In celebration of its centennial, the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has compiled a list of the “100 Objects That Shaped Public Health.”

* “Arguably the greatest technological triumph of the century has been the public-health system, which is sophisticated preventive and investigative medicine organized around mostly low- and medium-tech equipment; … fully half of us are alive today because of the improvements.”
― Richard Rhodes, Visions of Technology: A Century of Vital Debate About Machines Systems and the Human World

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As we buckle our seat belts, we might send thoughtfully-seasoned birthday greetings to David Marine; he was born on this date in 1888.  A pathologist, he is best remembered for his trial, from 1917 to 1922, during which he supplemented the diets of Ohio schoolgirls with iodine, which greatly reduced their development of goiter— and led to the iodization of table salt (one of Johns Hopkins’ 100 Objects).

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Written by LW

September 20, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or will”*…

 

Woodcut engraving from the mid-16th century depicting the process of distilling essential oils from plants with a conical condenser

Since ancient times, people have felt that eliminating the foul odors of human bodies and effluvia is an effective– indeed, in some times and cultures, the most effective–  way to improve public health.

Consider the sweet, intoxicating smell of a rose: While it might seem superficial, the bloom’s lovely odor is actually an evolutionary tactic meant to ensure the plant’s survival by attracting pollinators from miles away. Since ancient times, the rose’s aroma has also drawn people under its spell, becoming one of the most popular extracts for manufactured fragrances. Although the function of these artificial scents has varied widely—from incense for spiritual ceremonies to perfumes for fighting illness to products for enhancing sex appeal—they’ve all emphasized a connection between good smells and good health, whether in the context of religious salvation or physical hygiene.

Over the last few millennia, as scientific knowledge and social norms have fluctuated, what Westerners considered smelling “good” has changed drastically: In today’s highly deodorized world, where the notion of “chemical sensitivity” justifies bans on fragrance and our tolerance of natural smells is ever diminishing, we assume that to be without smell is to be clean, wholesome, and pure. But throughout the long and pungent history of humanity, smelling healthy has been as delightful as it has disgusting…

The whole stinky story at “Our Pungent History: Sweat, Perfume, and the Scent of Death.”

* Patrick Süskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer [an amazingly good novel]

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As we hold our noses, we might spare a thought for Sir Joseph William Bazalgette; he died on this date in 1891.  A civil engineer, he became chief engineer of London’s Metropolitan Board of Works, in which role his major achievement was a response to the “Great Stink of 1858,” in July and August 1858, during which very hot weather exacerbated the smell of untreated human waste and industrial effluent.  Bazalgette oversaw the creation of a sewer network for central London which addressed the problem– and was instrumental in relieving the city from cholera epidemics and in beginning the cleansing of the River Thames.

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Written by LW

March 15, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Data without some sort of analysis is just noise”*…

 

The Scientific American Reference Book of 1913, compiled by Albert A. Hopkins and A. Russell Bond, is available to read on the Internet Archive… a delightful snapshot of the concerns of readers of the magazine a hundred years ago, as well as an interesting tour through infographic design strategies au courant at the time.

“The Editorial staff of the Scientific American receive annually about 15,000 inquiries covering a wide range of topics,” explained Hopkins in a preface. While the magazine had earlier published a Scientific American Cyclopedia of Receipts, Notes, and Queries (which did well, selling 25,000 copies), the book didn’t quite fill the needs of every reader; letter-writers wanted general information about the world, not just scientific formulas.

They wanted information about the Antarctic region, the Panama route, shipping, navies, armies, railroads, population, education, patents, submarine cables, wireless telegraphy, manufactures, agriculture, mining, mechanical movements, astronomy, and the weather…

The infographics are also, of course, an opportunity to compare those times to ours (e.g.: the most recent data on expenditure on public education in the U.S. suggests that “teachers salaries”– “instruction”– has fallen to 54% of the total.)

More backstory and examples at “A Treasure Trove of Awkward Early-20th-Century Infographics.” Page through the entire volume here.

* Irene Ros, Bocoup; interview, October, 02, 2014

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As we compress, 1000 words at a time, we might send statistically-significant birthday greetings to Lambert Adolphe Jacques Quetelet; he was born on this date in 1796.  An astronomer, mathematician, statistician, and sociologist, he was instrumental in introducing statistical methods to the social sciences. From 1825, he wrote papers on social statistics, and in 1835 gained international recognition for publication of Sur l’homme et le developpement de ses facultés, essai d’une physique sociale, in which he used the normal curve (which had previously been applied to error correction) to illustrate a distribution of measured human traits about a central value–  pioneering the concept of “the average man or woman.” One of his primary foci was public health: his establishment of a simple measure for classifying people’s weight relative to an ideal for their height, the body mass index (AKA, the Quetelet index), has endured with minor variations to the present day.

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Written by LW

February 22, 2016 at 1:01 am

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