Mad Men and Mad Nerds

Should we enable the following conversation between any website and your web browser (e.g. Safari, Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome)?

Your web browser: "Hello website potentiallyInteresting.com."

Website: "Hello web browser."

Your web browser: "Dear Website, please do not track who I am. Do not even try to remember that I came to visit you."

Website: "You mean you don't want me to track you even if though you did not switch on all your privacy controls such as switching off acceptance of 'cookie' files?"

Your web browser: "That's right. You are an upstanding website and when I say to you 'DNT:1" that means that I don't want you to track me. That's what the user who controls me wants."

Website: "I certainly am upstanding and I respect your statement of the user's wishes. Consider this whole visit forgotten."

Your web browser: "Thanks for your understanding."

Website: "Do I know you?"

It turns out that there is a great deal of controversy about these five characters: DNT:1. On the one side are the user advocates who argue that websites should honor the do not track directive. One the other side are the companies who fund large parts of the web infrastructure because of the advertising revenues (~70 billion) that are generated by being able to track the traffic of users across their Internet properties. These companies now wonder where their investments will go if few users allow their websites to track them. Their concerns are not misplaced. After all, how many of us would choose to keep commercial breaks on broadcast television if all we had to do is to flip a switch? Of course, those same companies could choose to have the following alternative ending to the above conversation:

Website: "I certainly am upstanding and I respect your statement of the user's wishes. But we have to pay the bills. If you will not allow tracking, I just cannot show you my contents. Sorry."

Your web browser: "OK then. I'll let my user know that she has to allow tracking if she wants to see your contents."

Website: "I will be waiting. But don't expect me to recognize you."

Ultimately, the debate is going to turn on the valuation that the public places on its autonomy and privacy relative to the broadest access to web content. For those of us in the arts, sciences or businesses of curation of the various forms of knowledge and data, the outcome of this multi-billion dollar debate will affect our work for decades to come.

Hat tip: Ben Adida


Meta-directory of the Countway community

Countway Photo Day from CBMI on Vimeo.

Dearth of Death: A Fatal Wound to Medical Research?

My esteemed colleague L.J. Wei often reminds us that health outcomes which are not as hard-edged as death can be misleading. For example, the early press, decades ago, about the uncovering of early cancer by the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) was used to justify the surgical removal of hundreds of thousands of prostates. In hindsight, neither the PSA test nor much of the ensuing expensive and occasionally morbid surgeries made a significant dent in lifespan.

One might therefore reasonably conclude that the government, the census bureau, Social Security Administration or the Department of Health and Human Services would therefore place the highest premium on the accurate reporting of death, and its causes, for our citizens. Surely, those data are the incontrovertible evidentiary base for our public health monitoring, medical treatment evaluations (whether of drug, device or procedure), and projections of the fundamental demographics of our nation. So, it might be all too easy for most of us to overlook or dismiss the following innocuous-appearing bureaucratese-laden announcement

IMPORTANT NOTICE The National Technical Information Service (NTIS) has been notified by the Social Security Administration (SSA) of an upcoming important change in the Death Master File data. NTIS, a cost-recovery government agency, disseminates the DMF data on behalf of SSA. Please see the attachment, provided by SSA, for an explanation of the change. The implementation date of this change is November 1, 2011. Should you have any questions, please email me at wstrickland@ntis.gov and I will be happy to forward any questions not answered by the attachment to the Social Security Administration for reply.

What does this mean? It means that there is no longer a single, federal authoritative source of death records. Most of the operational details have now devolved to individual states without guarantees of consistency of reporting or a one-stop-shop for researchers looking for the national distribution of the Grim Reaper. Will we have to resort to crowd-sourcing death now in order to perform accurate population research?

Hat tip: Shawn Murphy

Death workflow