Monday, April 9, 2007

The Ghost Map, A Book Review

TITLE: The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World
AUTHOR: Steven Berlin Johnson
PUBLISHER: Riverhead Books
RELEASE: October 19th 2006

The Ghost Map links a deadly cholera epidemic in 1854 London to a contaminated drinking water source. The empirical evidence assembled by John Snow and his associates clash with the accepted scientific beliefs of the time. The descriptions of the sewage drains, the cesspools and basements full of human excrement provide a vivid image of the times. You can almost smell the conditions.

Convincing the establishment of the causal relationship was difficult even though the puzzle pieces are fit together relatively quickly. The cholera maps served to arrange the pieces into an image that strongly suggests a linkage between the cholera and the water pump. Snow’s Voronoi diagram, separate from Snow’s point/bar map, illustrates the distance from each home to a water pump in time. Both maps represented important mapping techniques in epidemiology of the times. (See reference to paper by Tom Koch, below)

The more frightening aspects of the book are the author's (Steven Johnson) musings in the Conclusions and Epilogue. Though technological advances proceed at a thundering rate, infrastructure development continues to lag behind the needs. We can certainly pack more people into smaller spaces with the appropriate infrastructure and management. But in an evolving urban environment it is hard to know what infrastructure and management are needed. And when things go wrong within a densely populated area, the impacts can be devastating.

As population increases globally and locally, the demand for better management of our public health and safety increase. There is a significant lag time between our scientific understanding and the implementation of public safeguards that reflect and address these understandings as is evidenced in the cholera epidemics of the 1800’s. Since the western NC floods of 2004, we still have not acknowledged the basic relationships between impervious surface, storm water runoff and increased flooding. TVA published a report in 1962, Floods on the Swannanoa and Flat Creek, Vicinity of Black Mountain and Montreat North Carolina, outlining the long history of flooding in the Swannanoa Valley. Dunne and Leopold published their definitive summary of hydro-studies, Water in the Environmental Planning text in 1978, which is still used in classrooms today. The Coweta Hydrologic Labs and NOAA’s National Center for Climatic Data Center—centers of flood modeling and data—are located in our back yard. But in spite of the well established science, local resources and history, winning over the majority of our decision-makers may require one or more additional insults to the public’s health and safety; perhaps another slope failure, another flood, a hazardous materials accident or spill in a densely populated area.

Western North Carolina, like the rest of the world, is urbanizing quickly. If the subdivision rates continue as it has over the past 16 years, Buncombe County’s private lands will be fully urbanized in 61 years (all private parcels will be less than 10 acres in size). Macon County will reach the same point in 30 years. The additional infrastructure and regulation to protect the public’s health will follow.

Planning for the future may well be more desirable scenario than crisis management stimulated by some disastrous event. While observing the London of today, we may be seeing into our own future in western North Carolina. “The average Londoner can expect to be caught on surveillance video hundreds of times daily. After the (July 7, 2006 tube) bombings, investigators reviewed well over 6,000 CCTV tapes.” We have a lot more to lose in western NC that just our mountainsides as we are continue to shift from a rural to an urban landscape.

The Author
Primary Map of Water Pumps and Deaths
UCLA Dept of Epidemiology, The Maps, Great Site…
National Geographic Site on John Snow
Tom Koch, The Map as Intent: Variations on the Theme of John Snow
Cartographies of Disease-ESRI Press

Today’s Infrastructure Advances, Video Surveillance
CSO, The Resource for Security Executives

Steven Berlin Johnson, the author, talking about the book

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