Effect Measure

Can CDC get a life?

When I started talking about this with friends and colleagues several months ago they thought I was quite crazy. But then they’ve thought that for a long time. It’s mainly a source of amusement. I hope. Anyway. What I was talking about is using the online virtual world, Second Life, for public health purposes. Second Life (SL) is a “3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents.” Over 1.3 million have logged on in the last 60 days. You participate by constructing a 3D representation of yourself called an avatar. If you are an old geezer like me, there is a pretty steep learning curve just to figure out how to alter the appearance of your avatar and move around, but my offspring picked it up very fast. Sigh.

People seem to do a lot of things in SL, including socializing, doing business (there is an in-world currency exchangeable for US dollars; some people are said to make over a $100,000 a year there; real dollars, not virtual ones), attending events and concerts. Sweden is slated to be the first country to set up an official embassy there, but already colleges, Fortune 500 companies and small entrepreneurs are all over the place. The modal activity, though, seems to be sex. Virtual sex. That’s still one of the things I haven’t managed yet. Maybe it’s the size of my RAM.

What’s this have to do with public health? Actually, my idea was to start a flu pandemic in SL and watch how people react, but that probably wouldn’t be very popular with SLers. But a couple of federal agencies have also become interested in SL, and it turns out that one of them is CDC. It has a virtual CDC employee avatar (Hygeia Philo, by name) and a virtual headquarters in the SL metaverse.

Officials at the Atlanta-based agency say they’re exploring innovative ways to educate Net-savvy people about important health issues.

The CDC has joined corporate powerhouses Toyota, IBM and American Apparel in setting up shop in these virtual worlds. NASA is there. So are a few members of Congress. And most importantly, millions of people are there, part of a growing audience for a new breed of marketing messages.

“We can’t always expect people to come to our Web site or use our tools directly,” Janice Nall, director of the CDC’s Division of e-Health Marketing, said this week. The CDC is one of a handful of government agencies staking a place in Web-based virtual worlds such as Second Life (www.secondlife.com) and Whyville (www.whyville.net).

“People are congregating on different spots on the Internet,” Nall said. “And we need to take our messages out there to see how they’re received.” (Alison Young, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

The CDC effort is extremely modest, costing little in human resources and even less in money. The description in the AJC article makes it sound more like a website page in SL format: “a series of wall displays that links visitors to the CDC’s real-life Website.” My avatar has yet to visit it because I am still trying to figure out how to move around and find things in SL. It seems I’m not alone, though. Reportedy the CDC SL headquarters is not exactly mobbed with avatars looking for the latest on Leishmaniasis.

But I’m not making fun of this. My Wiki partner DemFromCT alerts me that there is divided opinion at CDC about this. I can see the merit on both sides:

Wow… public health at its finest. To bad we have decided to ignore the millions of impoverished and medically underserved children in the U.S. who do not have high speed internet access. And great idea…lets have those children who are privileged with great health insurance, getting a great education, and have high speed internet access — just sit on their butts for hours playing these internet based video games. Can you say….lets not address the obesity problems we have in this nation.

Shame on you CDC – have you forgotten the true mission of public health and the appropriate role for a federal agency?

But then this:

There are 3.6 million people registered to use Second Life. The population is growing by 22% a month. U.S. Senators are holding press conferences in Second Life. Harvard University is teaching classes in Second Life. I don’t see how you can dismiss this as a potential place for public health.

On balance I like the idea. They are spending practically nothing on it (AJC says $75 so far). Compare that to the money being wasted on Gerberding’s catastrophic Futures Initiative. So as far as the SL experiment goes, I say, good for CDC. It’s more evidence that Gerberding hasn’t yet killed all vision and creativity and sense of fun in its dedicated workforce.

Maybe the next step will be for the agency to get a First Life.


  1. #1 Liz Borkowski
    March 1, 2007

    Nedra Weinreich at Spare Change did an interview with John Anderton, the man behind CDC’s avatar, last year. It was the first I’d heard about an agency getting involved with SL, and it seemed like a good idea. One of the job duties he mentioned was recruiting new people into public health careers, and SL is probably a good way to meet tech-savvy youngsters who are at the career consideration stage.

    I haven’t visited SL myself, so I’m having a hard time understanding how a flu virus can spread there. The AJC article talks about the CDC working with a particular island to vaccinate some of its residents and then unleash a flu virus, so it can obviously happen. But is SL as a whole set up for virus transmission?

  2. #2 janinsanfran
    March 1, 2007

    This is sort of OT, but I hope not entirely wrong to post here since you are discussing new tools. Maybe you’ve already discussed this, but I don’t see it. I’ve just read a Reuters article on using a market to predict a flu pandemic. Seems completely wackjob to me, but I’d be curious to read the opinions of people who know something about this.

  3. #3 revere
    March 1, 2007

    jan: It’s on my list. Probably tomorrow or the next day.

  4. #4 Ana
    March 2, 2007

    Funny. I thought of using SL for suicide prevention. *1 Which lead to me to some interesting musings about the virtual and the real, and certain kinds of afterlife, time forks and what not. I didn’t entertain it seriously and finally junked the idea, not that I would have carried it out anyway. Reading the head post though makes me think that definetly something worthwhile and interesting could be done in the area of public health, at low cost, but exactly what? Seriously worth exploring.

    1) It seemed to me that the fact that SLers in RL are a rich, well fed, broadbandy, young population does not diminish the risk of suicide.

  5. #5 Achoo Nakamura
    March 3, 2007

    i am an avid user of SL. I started about 3 months ago wandering the place talking about H5N1 pandemic. I am met with similar responses as in real life.

    It is a great place to do this reaching out to the general population. Those who have been open to what i have to say, tell me they have begun preparing. Those who think I’m nuts… think I’m nuts… an entertaining distraction.

    The CDC space is interesting… no one is ever there. No staff, no visitors. There is no reason for anyone to go there.

    Maybe if they had a complete Pandemic display set up it would be helpful.

    In the meantime, Comeon in and look me up. We can start Panflu watch together. I participated in the Reuters World Eco Forum from Davos in SL. I asked several of the people interviewed panflu questions. They had no real answers. I was not surprised.

  6. #6 THD
    March 4, 2007

    I am surprised that CDC is using this medium, but it is good to see public health folks adopting/testing this technology out and not arriving after the party is already over.

    The American Cancer Society raised $40k in a walkathon on SL:

  7. #7 John Anderton
    March 6, 2007

    Interesting posts – and useful feedback, too. Sorry the CDC site is deserted; we’re still working on cool ideas to implement, but at the moment we’re in a bit of a hold pattern. Keep checking back! Thanks.
    John P. Anderton AKA Hygeia Philo

  8. #8 craig lefebvre
    March 11, 2007

    You might have missed the flu epidemic that was released in Whyville (a SL for youngsters). Fortunately, the CDC was there providing vaccines. Coverage here –

    It is a brave new world – especially for the public health people who are out exploring it. Hope you continue to cover the stories.

  9. #9 revere
    March 11, 2007

    craig: Thanks for the link. Fascinating. I knew CDC was in Whyville doing a flu vaccination gig but didn’t know there was an “epidemic.” I’ll check it out.