Photo credit: James Jordan
Information system lessons found in nature
Have you ever noticed how our minds can make connections when in different environments that we likely would not make in our routine surroundings? We suddenly can see the solution to a vexing work problem while driving to the grocery store, or the answer on how to structure a presentation pops into your head while raking leaves.

I had such an experience while enjoying brilliant autumnal colors on a Sunday morning walk. I was pondering the natural order of things, the cycle of birth and growth and inevitable decay. Suddenly, parallels between these laws of nature and aspects of public health informatics were newly apparent to me. So, although thoroughly unqualified to speak as a biologist, I offer these lessons from biology as we think about the state of public health information systems.

The first thing that occurred to me was how life is naturally biased toward growth—there is continual striving to reach for ever-greater heights, flexibility or functionality in order to not only survive but thrive. Such a dynamic drive to ever-increasing utility and survivability provides an excellent example for the lifecycle of public health information systems. Like nature, they cannot afford to become static and moribund. Rather, system owners must continually search for new forms of utility that increase the value and so survivability of the system.

That got me thinking about how life most often evolves slowly, but periodically goes through more dramatic change in order to adjust to new circumstances or otherwise ensure survivability. Think of how the influenza virus will sometimes undergo antigenetic shift to new genes, rather than the small changes seen in the more typical antigenetic drift. Similarly, there are times when a dramatic leap forward is called for in how our information systems are envisioned, designed and used. Arguably all of our major public health information systems, whether surveillance or immunization information or vital records systems, would benefit from courageous, forward-looking re-visioning of system requirements and design that could ensure their value—utility, flexibility and survivability—into the future.

The final lesson that occurred to me is that, at least for more advanced species of animal life, working together is smarter than working alone. The pack combines strengths across its members than no one member could possibly have alone, thus improving its chances of getting the food and territory it needs. So it is with informatics projects: collectively, our wisdom is greater than what any one of us could provide alone. Part of the challenge for public health is that programs, whether surveillance or immunization or other, need to better coordinate and share within the agency to ensure a coordinated approach to information and information system governance, and to also coordinate and share with other surveillance or immunization programs in other jurisdictions. We need to simultaneously meet the needs of both the pack and the species. Operating as such a pack may not always be the most efficient. But it invariably serves programs better in the long run. As the old N’gambai African proverb says, “If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together.”

Nature’s lessons for information systems

  • Biological systems tend toward progress.
  • Short bursts of accelerated growth help systems adapt well to rapidly changing circumstances.
  • Collective and cooperative action improves the whole group’s ability to adapt and survive.
If you want to travel fast, travel alone. If you want to travel far, travel together. - N’gambai African proverb