Information flows everywhere – part 1

Read an article today from Scientific American (Sewage is helping cities flush out the opioid crisis) about how using chemical analysis of wastewater can be used to assess the extent of the opioid crisis in their city.

Wastewater information highway

There’s a lab at ASU (Arizona State University) that chemically analyzes samples of wastewater to determine the amount of drugs that a city’s population excretes. They can provide a near real-time assessment of the proportion of drugs in city sewage and thereby, in a city’s population.

The problem with public drug use surveys and hospital data gathering is that they take time.  Moreover, surveys and hospital data gathering typically come long after drugs problem have become a serious problem in a city’s population.

Wastewater sample drug analysis can be done in a matter of days and can be redone as often as needed. Such data could be used to track intervention activities and see if they have a real impact (positive or negative) on drug use in a population.

Neighborhood health

In addition, by sampling sewage at a neighborhood level, one can gain an assessment of drug problems at any sub-division of a city that’s needed.

The above article talks about an MIT program with Cary, NC (from  that is designing robots to traverse sewer pipes and analyze wastewater chemical makeup in real time, reporting this back to ground stations around the city.

With such an approach, one could almost zero in (depending on sewer pipe networks) on any neighborhood in a city, target specific interventions at that level and measure impact in (digestion delayed) real time. Doing so, cities or states for that matter, could  experiment with different interventions on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis and gain statistical evidence on drug problem intervention effectiveness.

But, you can analyze wastewater for any number of variables, such as viruses, bacteria, enzymes, etc. Any of which can lead to a better understanding of a population’s health.


Two things I want to leave you with:

First, public health has had a major impact on human health and has doubled our lifespan in 200 years. All modern cities have water treatment plants today to insure water quality and thereby, have reduced the incidence of cholera and other waterborne epidemics in their cities. Wastewater analysis has the potential for significant improvements in population health monitoring. Just like water treatment, wastewater analysis will someday become common public health practice in modern cities throughout the world.

Second, I was at a conference this week which presented a slide that there was no cold data anymore (Pure//Accelerate 2018). This was in reference to  re-analyzing old, cold data can often lead to insights and process improvements that were not obvious at first glance.

But it’s not just data anymore. Any activity done by man needs to be analyzed for (inherent & invisible) information flows that could be extracted to make the world a better place.

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