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Introduction

We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

05 September 2016

Social Media Data: What’s the use?

Team ScienceBL is pleased to bring you #TheDataDebates -  an exciting new partnership with the AHRC, the ESRC and the Alan Turing Institute. In our first event on 21st September we’re discussing social media. Join us!

Every day people around the world post a staggering 400 million tweets, upload 350 million photos to Facebook and view 4 billion videos on YouTube. Analysing this mass of data can help us understand how people think and act but there are also many potential problems.  Ahead of the event, we looked into a few interesting applications of social media data.

Politically correct? 

During the 2015 General Election, experts used a technique called sentiment analysis to examine Twitter users’ reactions to the televised leadership debates1. But is this type of analysis actually useful? Some think that tweets are spontaneous and might not represent the more calculated political decision of voters.

On the other side of the pond, Obama’s election strategy in 2012 made use of social media data on an unprecedented scale2. A huge data analytics team looked at social media data for patterns in past voter characteristics and used this information to inform their marketing strategy - e.g. broadcasting TV adverts in specific slots targeted at swing voters and virtually scouring the social media networks of Obama supporters on the hunt for friends who could be persuaded to join the campaign as well. 

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Image from Flickr

In this year's US election, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are making the most of social media's huge reach to rally support. The Trump campaign has recently released the America First app which collects personal data and awards points for recruiting friends3. Meanwhile Democrat nominee Clinton is building on the work of Barack Obama's social media team and exploring platforms such as Pinterest and YouTube4. Only time will tell who the eventual winner will be.

Playing the market

You know how Amazon suggests items you might like based on the items you’ve browsed on their site? This is a common marketing technique that allows companies to re-advertise products to users who have shown some interest in the brand but might not have bought anything. Linking browsing history to social media comments has the potential to make this targeted marketing even more sophisticated4.

Credit where credit’s due?

Many ‘new generation’ loan companies don’t use a traditional credit checks but instead gather other information on an individual - including social media data – and then decide whether to grant the loan5. Opinion is divided as to whether this new model is a good thing. On the one hand it allows people who might have been rejected by traditional checks to get credit. But critics say that people are being judged on data that they assume is private. And could this be a slippery slope to allowing other industries (e.g. insurance) to gather information in this way? Could this lead to discrimination?

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Image from Flickr

What's the problem?

Despite all these applications there’s lots of discussion about the best way to analyse social media data. How can we control for biases and how do we make sure our samples are representative? There are also concerns about privacy and consent. Some social media data (like Twitter) is public and can be seen and used by anyone (subject to terms and conditions). But most Facebook data is only visible to people specified by the user. The problem is: do users always know what they are signing up for?

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Image from Pixabay

Lots of big data companies are using anonymised data (where obvious identifiers like name and date of birth are removed) which can be distributed without the users consent. But there may still be the potential for individuals to be re-identified - especially if multiple datasets are combined - and this is a major problem for many concerned with privacy.

If you are an avid social media user, a big data specialist, a privacy advocate or are simply interested in finding out more join us on 21st September to discuss further. Tickets are available here.

Katie Howe

12 August 2016

“Like light shining in a dark place”: Florence Nightingale and William Farr

On the anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s death, Katie Howe explores her scientific legacy.

Perhaps best known as ‘the lady with the lamp’ Florence Nightingale was also an accomplished scientist and social reformer.

In 1854, with Britain in the midst of the Crimean conflict, Nightingale was appointed to lead a party of nurses to a military hospital in Scutari (in modern day Istanbul). When she arrived she discovered a lack of coordination between hospitals and no standardised or consistent reporting of mortality rates and causes of death. Nightingale set to work gathering extensive information on all aspects of hospital care.

After returning from the Crimea, Nightingale used her new found celebrity status and personal connections to enlist the help of the eminent Victorian epidemiologist and statistician William Farr in analysing the vast quantities of data she had collected.

Their correspondence, which is held at the British Library, reveals a respectful professional relationship, with Farr often signing off,

“I have the honour to be your very faithful servant.”

In May 1857, when Nightingale sent Farr the death rates calculated from her Crimean war data, he replied,

“Dear Miss Nightingale. I have read with much profit your admirable observations. It is like light shining in a dark place. You must when you have completed your task - give some preliminary explanation - for the sake of the ignorant reader.” (Add MS 43398 f.10)

Add MS 43398 f.10
Add MS 43398 f.10


So Florence Nightingale was not only the literal ‘lady with the lamp’, but her statistical work also illuminated worrying trends in army mortality rates.

After receiving further data from Nightingale in November the same year, Farr wrote:

“This speech is the best that was ever written on diagrams or on the Army.”  (Add MS 43398 f.37)

 

Add MS 43398 f.37
Add MS 43398 f.37


As a result of this productive collaboration with Farr, Nightingale learned that the majority of deaths in the Crimean War were not due to battle wounds but to preventable diseases like typhus and cholera.

To get this important message across to high-ranking government officials who had no statistical training, Nightingale knew she needed a powerful visual message. She represented the cause of death in a revolutionary new way. Rather than using a table or list as was common at the time she created this striking rose diagram. 

Each of the 12 wedges represents a month of the year and changes in the wedges’ colour reveal changes over time. At a glance it was easy to see the deaths from epidemic diseases (blue) far outweighed deaths from battlefield wounds (red) and deaths from other causes such as accidents or frostbite (black).  After sanitary reforms such as the introduction of basic sanitation, hand washing and ventilation, deaths dropped dramatically. Compare the right rose (April 1854-March 1855) with left rose (April 1855-March 1856).

Rose diagram
Florence Nightingale’s Rose diagram “Notes on matters, affecting the health, efficiency and hospital administration of the British Army. London, 1858”. C.194.b.297

 

Her rose diagram was so easy to understand it was widely republished. Ultimately this striking visualisation and the accompanying report convinced the government that deaths were preventable if sanitation reforms were implemented in military hospitals. Nightingale’s work provided a catalyst for change, driving better and cleaner hospitals and the establishment of a new army statistics department to improve healthcare.

08 August 2016

Local heroes: “Without the least sense of pain or the movement of a muscle”

As part of a new series exploring local heroes in the Knowledge Quarter area, Philip Eagle reveals the curious history of anesthesia. 

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Francis Boott. Image: Public domain

A short bus ride away from the British Library, at 52 Gower Street, a blue plaque records the site of the first operation under general anaesthesia in the UK. On 19th December 1846, the dentist James Robinson performed a tooth extraction on a Miss Lonsdale. At the time, 52 Gower Street was the home of Dr. Francis Boott, an American expatriate physician who had heard from friends of the development of diethyl ether as an anaesthetic by William Morton in Boston.

Robinson lived further down the street towards the West End, at 14 Gower Street, where he has his own blue plaque. As well as his work on anaesthetics, he was the author of The Surgical and Mechanical Treatment of the Teeth, claimed to be the first British dental textbook of real scientific quality. He would later become dentist to Prince Albert, and be significantly involved in the creation of the College of Dentistry and the National Dental Hospital.

In a letter to the Lancet, Boott described the operation with the following words:

“I beg to add, that on Saturday, the 19th, a firmly fixed molar tooth was extracted in my study from Miss Lonsdale, by Mr. Robinson, in the presence of my wife, two of my daughters, and myself, without the least sense of pain, or the movement of a muscle”

In a book published later in the year, Robinson himself stated that the patient was only thirteen years old, and reported that:

“She had not felt the slightest pain, but had been dreaming of the country”.

Anaesthesia blue plaques
Blue plaque images by Spudgun67 CC BY-SA 4.0

Subsequently in the nineteenth century, diethyl ether was largely replaced as a general anaesthetic in the UK by chloroform, which was less irritating to the throat and lungs and less likely to have the initially stimulant effect that ether had on some patients. Since the mid twentieth century, the most important inhaled anaesthetics have been the fluorinated alkane halothane and fluorinated ethers such as sevoflurane and desflurance, which are pharmacologically safer and more effective, and also physically safer due to their lower flammability.

Philip Eagle, STM Content Expert

Sources and further reading:

  • Anesthesiology, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(4), since 2012 available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Boott, F. Surgical operations performed during insensibility produced by the inhalation of sulphuric ether*, Lancet, 1847, 49 (1218): 5-8. General Reference Collection P.P.2787. Also available electronically through Science Direct in the Reading Rooms. * Note for chemists: “sulphuric ether” was a common name at the time for diethyl ether, due to its preparation by reacting ethanol with sulphuric acid. The chemical itself did not contain any sulphur.
  • British Journal of Anaesthesia, Science, Technology & Business (P) GY 30-E(2), since 2014 available electronically through OUP in the Reading Rooms
  • Ellis, R H. James Robinson: England’s true pioneer of anaesthesia. In The History of Anesthesia, Third International Symposium, Proceedings, 1992: 153-164. Document Supply 4317.854000. Available online.
  • Johnson, K B. Clinical pharmacology for anesthesiology. London: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781
  • Pain, Document Supply 6333.795000, also available electronically through Ovid in the Reading Rooms
  • Robinson, J. Treatise on the inhalation of the vapour of ether for the prevention of pain in surgical operations, etc. London: Webster & Co. 1847. General Reference Collection 7481.cc.6
  • Robinson, J. The surgical and mechanical treatment of the teeth: including dental mechanics. London, 1846. General Reference Collection 1186.c.46 and RB.23.a.27503.
  • Shafer, S L and others. Stoelting’s pharmacology and physiology in anesthetic practice. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2015. Science, Technology & Business (B) 615.781.
  • Snow, S J. Blessed days of anaesthesia. New York: Oxford University Press. 2008. General Reference Collection YC.2009.a.15022