Data–Raising The Bar

We collect lots of data, but we don’t always collect the data we need. We, for example, don’t know how many children with disabilities are out of school in the world, nor do we know how many women die in childbirth in the poorest countries. We estimate, but often that is not good enough to make the right decision or design good programs. What is being called a high level group has been appointed by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon to not only fill in the blanks in the data we need but also to ensure that data can have quality and usability. The group is to come up with ideas of how to make this happen and is bringing together academics, activists, those who manage data for governments and those who put together global numbers. The idea is to bridge the old and new worlds of data, that means linking government statisticians with Silicon Valley developers. In some quarters this is being thought of as a data revolution. All the groups involved have something to contribute to increase the quantity of data so that the holes where data is needed and is not now being collected can be filled, as well as forge the sought after quality and usability so that in the end the data can be put to work to improve people’s lives.

Good ideas don’t always live up to their potential, let’s hope this one does.

People’s Need to Give

When Carol Clark had cancer and ran out of paid leave, her husband Dave put a little note on a bulletin board asking if anyone wanted to donate sick time to her. They are both teachers in Cudahy, a small city near Los Angeles. Teachers receive 10 sick days a year and Carol had accumulated sick time, still after rounds of chemo, she ran out. Dave Clark had done research and had found out that this was possible. Through the Catastrophic Illness Donation Program teachers from other districts can donate sick time to another. The teachers can only use this little known program once and must prove that their illness will keep them from their duties in the classroom. The response amazed Carol and Dave, even a teacher who was not particularly friendly with Carol donated time. Within a few weeks teachers from across the Los Angeles school districts gave Carol 154 sick days. In fact last year 23 of Los Angeles’ 30,000 teachers benefited from this program.

People respond to need more often than we usually remember or give them credit for. What is relevant in this story is that a policy made it possible—actually a policy that is often controversial in contract negotiations. If we are to build a more compassionate society, then we ought to call for more policies to address people’s need to give.

A Coming of Age

Nestle, one of the world’s largest food manufacturers, has pledged new standards for animal welfare, standards which are to be observed by its thousands of suppliers worldwide. The policy can be traced to a hidden camera operated by Mercy For Animals filming some dairy cows in Wisconsin being abused by one of Nestle’s suppliers. As a result four employees were charged with animal cruelty and the episode eventually led to Nestle’s announcement. The new standards will force the army of suppliers to provide more space for farm animals, phase out practices such as dehorning cattle or castrating animals without pain killers and keeping egg-laying hens in cramped cages. Nestle says its move stems from its awareness that its consumers care about animal welfare and has no plans for an increase in retail prices. In fact, it said, it plans to absorb the initial costs of the policy and has retained an organization to make spot audits.

Animal welfare groups hope that given that Nestle is the world’s largest food and beverage company, the policy will reverberate throughout the food industry and force smaller firms to follow the same standards. Regardless, it seems a coming of age for animal rights.

A Pet Called Paro

Some seniors are isolated with no visitors and with social contacts usually limited to nursing homes’ staff. Why not then have them be comforted by a robot disguised as a pet, in this case a furry animal called Paro? Some have Alzheimers’ and find it easy to relate to a pet, robot or not. The pet robot idea has also been tried with some children with autism and shown to be successful. To make their case, advocates ask, “Isn’t it better isolated people relate to a robot rather than stare at walls or television for hours?” Perhaps. Yet, I recall sitting on a bench at the beach near a group of seniors discussing what turned out to be soap opera characters as if they were members of their own families. And at the time I remember thinking, how sad. After reading about robots, I now question whether treating soap opera characters as family may not have advantages I hadn’t previously acknowledged. I grant there are instances such as those with some patients with Alzheimer’s or autism where using robots is clever and appropriate. But I am concerned that using robots with seniors in nursing homes may become the easy way out and keep us from looking at other solutions. For example, could some young people be given opportunities to volunteer? What about other seniors looking for meaningful activities. It takes work to recruit such people and even more to motivate them. But ultimately wouldn’t it build a better society?