Q&A with Bill Davenhall on Medical Place History, TEDMED, and the Importance of a Story Well Told

11/10/10Follow @bvbigelow

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to tell your story, and here’s this application that’s going to do it. Even though the EPA does have applications like this, you’d have to exactly know what you’re looking for before you could find it. It’s sort of hidden under bureaucratic-type technology thinking. It’s not that they’re on a different path than I’m on, it’s just that they’ve been so focused on the technology part of it that they have failed to recognize why people engage with technology. We engage because we’re curious, we want to improve our understanding. It’s not just for the sake of having a cool app.

X: So what are you doing with this app?

BD: It’s about your place history. The example is toxic chemicals. But it could just as easily be put to use in a whole wide variety of things. Say you want to look at a lifetime of real estate values of the places where you have lived. Or you want to look at a lifetime of energy consumption where you have lived. When you start to think of all the things that are related to place, you realize there are social things, cultural things, health things, police things, fire things. Now what we want to do is re-aggregate the data in a different fashion. We want to say this is our place, now all you people who have data that is relevant to that place come on, bring it into this application. We wanted something that would transcend any individual marketplace.

X: OK. So then what?

BD: The next phase in this whole thing of my place history is we’re giving people this information in terms of toxic releases and what’s? around them. Now people are asking, “What does it mean? What’s the difference between chromium and copper?” So it’s back to the technology drawing board. Now we have to move to this next phase where people begin to focus on how do we explain this data, and how do we get it so it can be useful to the consumer or useful to the physician.

X: I’ve talked to some doctors who say environmental risks are important, but most chemicals are practically impossible to correlate to specific ailments. They say it makes more sense to understand a patient’s genetic makeup and lifestyle because that can be more directly tied to health.

BD: The EPA says on the front page of their TRI database that the database is to inform consumers about what exists in their community. It’s not to prove that it causes any kind of disease. They’re just providing the information. Medical practice hasn’t incorporated this analytical framework yet, so that’s another thing this app is trying to do. You know, somebody in medicine stopped blood-letting [as a medical treatment], it only took 200 years. I’m not suggesting this will be quick. I’ve got interest at the Institute of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, where they’re beginning to really seriously think about this, about how they would drive more geo-medicine into their curriculums.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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