September 24, 2009

Swine Flu: How the Open Source Community May Cope Well

As the swine flu threat continues across the nation and around the world, the open source community could potentially make it through any epidemics or pandemics better than other groups, especially those in formal, structured workplaces and schools.

How so?

Well, because much of its work is done online, where people don't have to congregate to get their work done, the open source community has a sort of natural physical barrier to infection. People are often working by themselves or in very small groups, away from large corporate work settings.

That decentralized structure could be a good model for other groups as swine flu and regular influenza seasons approach, according to Dr. Harry F. Hull, a communicable diseases expert and a former state epidemiologist in Minnesota and New Mexico. Hull, who has been involved for decades in planning for pandemics and bio-terrorism scenarios, said in an interview that one of the best means for controlling the spread of diseases like swine flu and other types of flu is keeping workers isolated from each other.

"This idea of decentralized operations is a good one when it comes to epidemics and pandemics," Hull said. "I have frequently said that a pandemic or epidemic would present an opportunity to develop work-at-home strategies so companies can essentially continue to operate their businesses when there is a danger of spreading diseases when people congregate."

And since that's how much of the open source community functions, with many individual developers working solo around the world, that could mean fewer negative effects from a flu outbreak, he said. That's not absolute, of course, because some open source developers do their work within corporate settings or with others in group settings, but it is also flexible enough to be changed if a flu epidemic would begin to affect operations.

That ability to do open source development work outside of a crowded office situation is a good fit with epidemic and pandemic planning, Hull said.

"If companies want to plan ways to reduce disease spreading... companies that are more forward-looking ought to be developing ways for their employees to work at home," he said. "The key factors in respiratory disease transmission are proximity and what we would call contact rates--how many people you come in contact with and how close you are to them. Working at home, you really don’t have contact with people."

"It's actually something that should be encouraged," he said of working outside of large offices during a potential epidemic. "There are lots of businesses, for example, where if you have an insurance company that processes claims forms, it probably would be worthwhile to invest in Web applications so people can just work at home. To me, it's just a great strategy for business developopment."

Artealia Gilliard, a spokesperson for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, said "it's somewhat logical" that the widely scattered open source community might be more resistant to the effects of a swine flu epidemic or pandemic because people aren't physically around others who are sneezing, coughing or exhibiting other flu symptoms that can be spread in a centralized workplace. But at the same time, that won't completely protect people from being exposed to flu germs because they will be in other public places, such as stores when they leave their homes or remote workplaces.

CDC recommendations for businesses include suggestions for flexible work policies, such as telecommuting, in the event of serious flu outbreaks, she said.

Swine flu, also identified by the CDC as H1N1, is a new flu virus that was first seen in the U.S. this past April, according to the agency.

In June, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that the virus was spreading at such a rate that a pandemic of 2009 H1N1 flu was underway, according to the CDC. Swine flu got its name because laboratory testing showed that many of the genes in this new virus were very similar to influenza viruses that normally occur in pigs (swine) in North America, the CDC said.

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