On Traitwise

You may or may not have noticed a button alongside these musings that links to Traitwise. I’ve been working towards installing a more cogent version of this feature, and may get to that at some point. In the meantime, some explanation may be required. As usual, it will be in the form of a story.

One of my favorite people is Zack Booth Simpson. I met Zack a few years ago because he started hanging around with my friend and colleague Ed Marcotte. The way I usually explain Zack is like this: you know how sometimes they just recruit NBA players directly from high school? Zack’s like that, except with programming. He never bothered to get a high school degree, he just went directly into Origins (EA Games) and rose through their ranks to the point where he became independently wealthy and now just pretty much does what he wants. Which fortunately includes working with us on bioinformatics and synthetic biology. His title at the University is something like “resident genius.”

Anyway, Zack has many other interesting friends, and they’ve been fun to meet. His friend Steve Moore was interested in expression chip-based approaches to diagnostics and disease discovery. Now, Steve did not initially know much about this, given that he was also a software guy and theatrical producer (I told you these people were interesting). But he believed, and wanted to start a company. It seemed that the best way to get going would be on the software side, and the notion was that as we all scream towards having our genomes sequenced, it sure would be nice to have correlative analysis of how genotype matched up with phenotype. This in turn led to the notion that phenotypes could be collected via a social networking approach. As I write this, I realize it all sounds much more rational than it actually was. As with many start-ups, ideas careened around, bouncing off one another, generally not going anywhere, but somehow moving the company forward. Full disclosure: I have some incredibly small piece of this company, for my role as Resident Evil.

In any event, I actually think this is a Really Good Idea. It should be possible to mine folks’ own perceptions of their health and other traits for correlations that will eventually reach down to the genetic level. And in this regard I encourage you to click on the associated button and answer some questions. The format is a ‘question stream,’ and you can choose to some extent how you want to direct the stream (especially if you have an account … a *free* account … yes, free, free, free, like all eyeball-capturing devices). The real power behind Traitwise is in part this ever-growing stream of user-based questions, and in part the extraordinary statistical engine that does the correlative analysis. As one bemused user said “Interacting with Traitwise is like having the perfect boyfriend, who always wants to know more about you, and always asks the right questions.” Yessssss.

So, since this is sort of a biodefense blog, what is the biodefense relevance? I think just the notion that social networking is probably now our first line of defense against zoonosis and terrorist attacks. When we get hit with something that is arguably new and different, how will we know? There are various information-gathering exercises that can be carried out via emergency room data and aspirin sales and googling flu and whatnot, but for the most part these are all very … passive. They do not involve the afflicted or the observers of the afflicted. The great thing about the Internet is that it is a true Democracy, in just about every sense of the word: everyone gets a vote, and everyone’s vote is pretty much useless (there is in fact a reason this country is a Republic with a representative form of government). The only folks who really get anything out of this cacophany are the ones that ride above it, sifting trends and making predictions. I think this is still difficult for Command and Control types to really get behind, although they’re pretty damn sharp. And I think it’s going to be even harder to develop an extended social network that not only gathers information but that can act on it. But I also think that our future as a Cheeseburger-Eating Empire depends upon it. We are just too vulnerable, can be taken down in too many different ways. And the only possible response is to … empower the folks who are really concerned about their health: us. Once we quit just using the Internet as a playground and start to have an extended sense of self that realizes we have a responsibility to our avatars … that’s when things will get interesting.

OK, I’m expounding beyond my knowledge and paygrade, time to shut up.


- originally posted on Tuesday, September 21st, 2010