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Field science

I have just spent a cold and rainy Canadian Sunday indoors, watching the 9th annual MSF UK Scientific Day, streamed online for the very first time, for the entire world to see.

I have just spent a cold and rainy Canadian Sunday indoors, watching the 9th annual MSF UK Scientific Day, streamed online for the very first time, for the entire world to see. (You watch the videos here)

967 people in 5 continents, including many current field workers, were able to watch the remarkable presentations about research done in the field by MSF. From recent changes in Malaria treatment (which I learned about in South Sudan, when I was told I would be responsible for instituting the brand new malaria treatment, keeping all the statistics, and sending in all the data), to research into the use of satellite mapping to assess populations in emergency situations, to surveys done to delineate horrific sexual violence in Guatemala, to questions concerning how to balance priorities in a world with so much needing attention, it was a day guaranteed to make one think and wonder.

An amazing talk by Paul Conneally about 'Digital Humanitarianism', in which he makes it clear that MSF can choose not to be "an analog organization in a digital world”, was guaranteed to make everyone rethink how we as an organization will harness the benefits and the risks inherent in the ongoing explosion of technology that is upon us. One of the most remarkable statistics I learned is that there are now more people in Africa with cell phones than electricity. As was made clear in this keynote presentation, humanitarian organizations need to be in the forefront of research into how this technical revolution affects how we do our work. Humanitarian organizations "need to understand how people are using technology in communities and countries where they are working, and how this will affect 'community driven development'." The digital world is going to revolutionize humanitarian work, and the message presented is that we must prepare ourselves by researching the best way to use this to the advantage of the populations we work with and our organizations.

With only one mission under my belt, I was awed and my brain was tired by the end of the day, and I was just sitting on my couch, watching the presentations with a glass of lovely Chilean vino keeping me company. I did not realize the breadth and depth of the medical research done by MSF, and watching the conference online allowed me to have a much better understanding of the organization I work with. The presentation about using Teleradiology to accurately read radiographs done in the field was particularly poignant to me. I was chastised in the field for questioning another clinician's diagnosis of TB from what appeared to me to be a normal x-ray of a very sick child. It became very clear to me that good research into how to appropriately assess and diagnose difficult cases would help our patients and our field workers, and in this case, a protocol for diagnosis would have been very useful to me.

Particularly impressive to me were the questions presented: should MSF focus on the greatest good for the highest number of people; should there be more singular and focused investigations into specific problems; what is the best way to allow access to the research done by MSF, and how to appropriately assess the research being done and be comfortable that the work is not just heading out into cyberspace, where it may not be effectively assessed, analyzed and utilized.

As a returned field worker, I would like to know about these things while I am in the field. This is where our need to understand how the new digital world and the research being conducted is affecting the work I am doing would be helpful to me. It would be good to know in the midst of my daily chaos, that there is much thought and work and analysis going on behind the scenes. With the ability to reach almost everyone almost everywhere, at least part of the time, this would be one way to make very good use of the new approaches to Humanitarian Work that will be inevitable in the coming years.

As a fitting end to the day, consider watching the trailer for the as not yet completed movie 'They Go To Die' presented by epidemiologist and new filmmaker, Jonathan Smith, which brought the reality of the work with and the research of MSF to a palpable spot in my heart. (You can watch the trailer here)