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WHO Joins the Wikipedia Frenzy But Could Public Collaboration Backfire?

The growing trend of “wiki-sizing” the world got another boost with the World Health Organization announcing it will update its medical coding database with the help of everyday citizens.

Digital Journal — The WHO’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD, as it’s known) will soon be open to writers, young scientists and anyone with a penchant for cataloguing ailments. The collaborative wiki will allow people to register, back their revision suggestions with medical evidence and engage in online debates.

Contributing to the ICD is not like posting an article on climate change in Wikipedia. It’s serious stuff. “The International Classification of Diseases puts diseases in categories, in small drawers, to be able to group them and count them and then to use this information to, for example, make decisions in public health like vaccination programs,” Dr. Robert Jakob, the WHO medical officer responsible for the ICD, explained to CBC News.

Each disease or sickness uses a code determined by the WHO. They are subdivided into various categories, which includes symptoms and affected body part. For example, the ICD lists 35 different types of hernias and 31 strains of schizophrenia.

Although diseases like melanoma don’t need revisions year to year, sometimes new diseases emerge that require listing in the ICD. In 2003, a code for SARS had to be added.

Set to be drafted by the end of 2008, the wiki-assisted version of ICD is a double-edged sword. First, the good: By encouraging grassroots participation, the new version will take advantage of Web 2.0 technology to finally nudge the WHO to the 21st century. A collaborative process can make the IDC more transparent to the public, giving anyone a chance to put their medical knowledge to use.

But with this democratization comes several dangers. Although hired editors will oversee the wiki, sneaky writers can forge medical evidence and submit faulty information on diseases. This is more catastrophic than an employee promoting his company through Wikipedia. What’s stopping well-meaning but ill-informed contributors to flood the most widely used statistical classification system in the world?

Also, hackers could go to town with the ICD wiki. Imagine if bored cyber criminals wanted to fudge some stats on the ICD, or add subtly erroneous symptoms. Opening the door to the public might be commendable, but WHO administrators better be prepared for security breaches. Hackers are always looking for new targets that will splash their names on headlines.

It’s also worth wondering why the WHO went the collaborative route. We are in the midst of a wiki frenzy, where anyone can contribute to sites on travel, beer and song lyrics, for example. It’s all the rage for companies to launch wikis in order to sound hip to tech heads who regard open-source projects as a bare necessity for next-gen progress. But is this the right fit for the WHO? Should everyone jump on the wiki bandwagon just because Netizens want to be included in every project?

We have to wait and see whether the ICD revision will blow up in the WHO’s face. In fact, we’ll have to wait three years — the final version will be ready in 2010.

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