Disasters And The Gift Of Knowledge

Natural and unnatural disasters have been happening for all of recorded time. The common element to all disasters that I can remember has been the incredible outpouring of assistance from not only immediate neighbors of those affected, but also from strangers thousands of miles away. The assistance comes in the form of money, people opening their homes to evacuees, healthcare, police, and fire volunteers giving of their time time and expertise, and behind the scenes volunteers helping unite families and administer aid that helps people with basic services that they have lost. My friend Ron LaPorte, professor of epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh, believes one of the greatest gifts that can be offered is the gift of knowledge.
Ten years or so ago, Ron sent me an email after a speech I had given about the future of the Internet. Ron liked the vision he heard about the Internet and he described to me the vision he had for global health. I knew very little about his area of expertise but was captivated by the passion he had for changing the world. Ron invited me to the University of Pittsburgh and I went there to share my thoughts. That was the beginning of a decade of sharing thoughts with each other. During that time, I saw Ron draw people and organizations into his web of collaborators and I have witnessed huge strides he has made in using the Internet to share information through creation of a "global health network". 
The project, funded initially by NASA and now by the National Library of Medicine, started with a focus on prevention. Ron’s theory was that global health can be significantly improved through prevention and that prevention, for the most part, occurs through information sharing. Ron’s platform to enable the sharing is called the Supercourse. From a small beginning, the Supercourse now has 30,000 participants in more than 150 countries. "Distance Learning" had been around for a long time but in most countries of the world it was prohibitively expensive. The Supercourse takes a simple approach — it collects Powerpoint lectures and provides them for free to anyone anywhere. 
After September 11, 2001 it became clear that disasters were a key factor affecting global health and that sharing information about subjects beyond epidemiology could have a very positive impact on both prevention and recovery. When the 16 year old crashed a Cessna airplane into a bank in Tampa, Florida, the global health network created a lecture on “airline safety”. After the Tsunami, lectures were created by some of the top meteorologists and oceanographers. The most recent lecture, by Eric Noji who was head of disasters at the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization, is about Hurricanes. "We want to reach a million people" with Eric’s lecture Ron says.
The Supercourse is a great gift to humankind, helping to improve global health through better health training and sharing of research — through improved lectures. How does the world improve the quality of lectures? By convincing faculty worldwide to share their lectures. Will they do it? It is hard to say no to Ron LaPorte. The Supercourse has 20,300 faculty from 151 countries who have created a Library of Lectures with passionate scientific content from across the world. So far, the project has made 2,156 outstanding lectures available.

  • For an additional perspective on how technology relates to the current disaster, see Irving’s blog.