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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Why Twitter is dying, in ten tweets

It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

Twitter has been dying since 2009, and commentators have pre-emptively declared it deceased pretty much every year since. To declare that it's on the downturn has become a bit of a cliché. But that doesn't mean that it isn't also, well, true.

Grumbling among users and commentators has grown to a roar over the past few days, thanks in part to a Buzzfeed report (refuted by Jack Dorsey, Twitter's CEO) claiming the service will move away from a chronological timeline and towards an algorithmic one. Users coined the hashtag #RIPTwitter in response, and, tellingly, many of their complaints spanned beyond the apparently erroneous report. 

They join a clutch of other murmurings, bits of data and suggestions that things are not as they should be in the Twitter aviary. 

Below is one response to the threat of the new timeline, aptly showing that for lots of users, the new feed would have been the straw that broke the tweeters' backs:

Twitter first announced it was considering a new 10,000 character limit in January, but it's yet to be introduced. Reactions so far indicate that no one thinks this is a good idea, as the 140 character limit is so central to Twitter's unique appeal. Other, smaller tweaks – like an edit button – would probably sit much more easily within Twitter's current stable of features, and actually improve user experience: 

While Dorsey completely denied that the change would take place, he then followed up with an ominous suggestion that something would be changing:

"It'll be more real-time than a feed playing out in real time!" probably isn't going to placate users who think the existing feed works just fine. It may be hard to make youself heard on the current timeline, but any kind of wizardry that's going to decide what's "timely" or "live" for you is surely going to discriminate against already alienated users.

I've written before about the common complaint that Twitter is lonely for those with smaller networks. Take this man, who predicts that he'll be even more invisible in Twitter's maelstrom if an algorithm deems him irrelevant: 

What's particularly troubling about Twitter's recent actions is the growing sense that it doesn't "get" its users. This was all but confirmed by a recent string of tweets from Brandon Carpenter, a Twitter employee who tweeted this in response to speculation about new features:

...and then was surprised and shocked when he received abuse from other accounts:

This is particularly ironic because Twitter's approach (or non-approach) to troll accounts and online abusers has made it a target for protest and satire (though last year it did begin to tackle the problem). @TrustySupport, a spoof account, earned hundreds of retweets by mocking Twitter's response to abuse:

Meanwhile, users like Milo Yiannopolous, who regularly incites his followers to abuse and troll individuals (often women and trans people, and most famously as part of G*merg*te), has thrived on Twitter's model and currently enjoys the attentions of almost 160,000 followers. He has boasted about the fact that Twitter could monetise his account to pull itself out of its current financial trough:

The proof of any social media empire's decline, though, is in its number and activity of users. Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that, based on a sample of tweets, tweets per user had fallen by almost 50 per cent since last August. Here's the reporter's tweet about it:

Interestingly, numbers of new users remained roughly the same – which implies not that Twitter can't get new customers, but that it can't keep its current ones engaged and tweeting. 

Most tellingly of all, Twitter has stopped reporting these kinds of numbers publicly, which is why Jim Edwards had to rely on data taken from an API. Another publication followed up Edwards' story with reports that users aren't on the platform enough to generate ad revenue:

The missing piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the one thing keeping Twitter alive, is that its replacement hasn't (yet) surfaced. Commentators obsessed with its declining fortunes still take to Twitter to discuss them, or to share their articles claiming the platform is already dead. It's ironic that the most heated discussions of the platform's weaknesses are playing out on the platform itself. 

For all its faults, and for all they might multiply, Twitter's one advantage is that there's currently no other totally open platform where people can throw their thoughts around in plain, public view. Its greatest threat yet will come not from a new, dodgy feature, but from a new platform – one that can actually compete with it.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.