The morning after: festivals are prone to outbreaks of mumps and measles. Photo: Olivia Harris/Reuters
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How to stay healthy at summer festivals

Following outbreaks of campylobacter infection at Glastonbury and flu at festivals in Europe, some researchers are calling for better surveillance of the threats to festival-goers’ health.

It’s the season of crowds. We’ve had the World Cup, the Commonwealth Games and countless music festivals. Our airports are heaving. There’s a plethora of diseases you might catch from such proximity – so, should you worry? Astonishingly, almost certainly not. And that is thanks to mass surveillance.

For instance, we now have a report on the effectiveness of health surveillance at the London 2012 Olympic Games. The event threw 11 million people from 205 nations into close contact. Objectively, it looks like a public health nightmare – yet it wasn’t.

In fact, we might have predicted that from the entirely dull health records of previous Olympic gatherings. At Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000, less than 1 per cent of the visits to health-care professionals were due to infectious diseases. Athens 2004 had no reports of infectious disease outbreaks and the communicable disease reports from Beijing 2008 were down 40 per cent on those for the city in 2007.

London 2012 followed the pattern. As with previous Olympics, its safety can be ascribed to years of planning, with protocols established for the daily reporting of any threat of a virulent infectious disease. Intensive-care units were given access to websites for alerting public health authorities to suspicious cases.

The precautions included daily assessments of the worldwide threat of new infectious diseases and how these might travel to London. That is how we know that a few teams suffered norovirus outbreaks before they arrived, and that there was an outbreak of chicken pox among staff at one of the Olympic hotels. All threats were safely contained. During the event, there were a few cases of gastrointestinal infections but little more. In the end, nothing occurred that would not happen in the average UK summer.

Not every mass gathering benefits from Olympic-style planning. Music festivals are particularly prone to problems. There have been outbreaks of Campylobacter infection at Glastonbury and of H1N1 at festivals in Belgium, Hungary and Serbia. That is why some researchers are calling for better surveillance of the threats to festival-goers’ health.

A comprehensive survey of 32 years of medical reports from large-scale music festivals shows that they are generally low-risk events, but this does vary. Reports of gastrointestinal problems range from nine per 100,000 people at Glastonbury 1997 to 55,000 per 100,000 at the 1987 meeting of the Rainbow Family in North Carolina. When over half the people at your chosen event contract dysentery, you know you’ve picked badly.

Music festivals are also hot spots for occasional breakouts of measles and mumps. That is partly because there is a higher incidence of vaccine-shunning among the segments of the population likely to attend music festivals. Some health researchers are recommending that festivals implement a rule similar to the one in place for Hajj pilgrims, who have to present a complete immunisation record; or at least offer on-site vaccinations.

Judicious use of social media might also help. A collaboration between British, Israeli and Danish researchers correlated 7.5 million tweets and 32,000 online health searches to link disease outbreaks with specific festival gatherings. It wouldn’t be hard, they pointed out, to use Twitter or Facebook to follow up visitors at a festival that has created particular health problems. Festival-goers might benefit from messages with advice about their likely exposure, symptoms to look out for and whether to seek a medical consultation. Mass surveillance doesn’t always have to be used for evil. 

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 06 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Gaza

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A quote-by-quote analysis of how little Jeremy Hunt understands technology

Can social media giants really implement the health secretary’s sexting suggestions? 

In today’s “Did we do something wrong? No, it was social media” news, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has argued that technology companies need to do more to prevent sexting and cyber-bullying.

Hunt, whose job it is to help reduce the teenage suicide rate, argued that the onus for reducing the teenage suicide rate should fall on social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter.

Giving evidence to the Commons Health Committee on suicide prevention, Hunt said: “I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem.”

Pause for screaming and/or tearing out of hair.

Don’t worry though; Hunt wasn’t simply trying to pass the buck, despite the committee suggesting he direct more resources to suicide prevention, as he offered extremely well-thought out technological solutions that are in no way inferior to providing better sex education for children. Here’s a quote-by-quote analysis of just how technologically savvy Hunt is.

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“I just ask myself the simple question as to why it is that you can’t prevent the texting of sexually explicit images by people under the age of 18…”

Here’s Hunt asking himself a question that he should be asking the actual experts, which is in no way a waste of anybody’s time at all.

“… If that’s a lock that parents choose to put on a mobile phone contract…”

A lock! But of course. But what should we lock, Jeremy? Should teenager’s phones come with a ban on all social media apps, and for good measure, a block on the use of the camera app itself? It’s hard to see how this would lead to the use of dubious applications that have significantly less security than giants such as Facebook and Snapchat. Well done.

“Because there is technology that can identify sexually explicit pictures and prevent it being transmitted.”

Erm, is there? Image recognition technology does exist, but it’s incredibly complex and expensive, and companies often rely on other information (such as URLs, tags, and hashes) to filter out and identify explicit images. In addition, social media sites like Facebook rely on their users to click the button that identifies an image as an abuse of their guidelines, and then have a human team that look through reported images. The technology is simply unable to identify individual and unique images that teenagers take of their own bodies, and the idea of a human team tackling the job is preposterous. 

But suppose the technology did exist that could flawlessly scan a picture for fleshy bits and bobs? As a tool to prevent sexting, this still is extremely flawed. What if two teens were trying to message one another Titian’s Venus for art or history class? In September, Facebook itself was forced to U-turn after removing the historical “napalm girl” photo from the site.

As for the second part of Jezza’s suggestion, if you can’t identify it, you can’t block it. Facebook Messenger already blocks you from sending pornographic links, but this again relies on analysis of the URLs rather than the content within them. Other messaging services, such as Whatsapp, offer end-to-end encryption (EE2E), meaning – most likely to Hunt’s chagrin – the messages sent on them are not stored nor easily accessed by the government.

“I ask myself why we can’t identify cyberbullying when it happens on social media platforms by word pattern recognition, and then prevent it happening.”

Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, Jeremy, can’t you spot your problem yet? You’ve got to stop asking yourself!

There is simply no algorithm yet intelligent enough to identify bullying language. Why? Because we call our best mate “dickhead” and our worst enemy “pal”. Human language and meaning is infinitely complex, and scanning for certain words would almost definitely lead to false positives. As Labour MP Thangam Debbonaire famously learned this year, even humans can’t always identify whether language is offensive, so what chance does an algorithm stand?

(Side note: It is also amusing to imagine that Hunt could even begin to keep up with teenage slang in this scenario.)

Many also argue that because social media sites can remove copyrighted files efficiently, they should get better at removing abusive language. This is a flawed argument because it is easy to search for a specific file (copyright holders will often send social media giants hashed files which they can then search for on their databases) whereas (for the reasons outlined above) it is exceptionally difficult for algorithms to accurately identify the true meaning of language.

“I think there are a lot of things where social media companies could put options in their software that could reduce the risks associated with social media, and I do think that is something which they should actively pursue in a way that hasn’t happened to date.”

Leaving aside the fact that social media companies constantly come up with solutions for these problems, Hunt has left us with the burning question of whether any of this is even desirable at all.

Why should he prevent under-18s from sexting when the age of consent in the UK is 16? Where has this sudden moral panic about pornography come from? Are the government laying the ground for mass censorship? If two consenting teenagers want to send each other these aubergine emoji a couple of times a week, why should we stop them? Is it not up to parents, rather than the government, to survey and supervise their children’s online activities? Would education, with all of this in mind, not be the better option? Won't somebody please think of the children? 

“There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.

Alas, if only we could say the same for you Mr Hunt.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.