How (not) to name your campaign

You can’t do anything these days without a catchy hashtag. But naming your campaign, whether in public health or any other area, has of course always been an important issue. I’ve recently become fascinated by the names for the concept of not drinking alcohol in January, or some other month. Often known as “Dry January”, there are many other names for the idea. I will share all the ones I’m aware of here (and if you know any others, please leave a comment!).

One reason for my interest is that this seems to be a relatively new thing in the UK, whereas I had always assumed it was an old thing. I grew up in Finland, and January abstinence has been a common habit there for as long as I can remember (i.e. decades rather than years). The earliest example of a campaign like this that I’ve come across is also from Finland, from as long ago as 1942. In the middle of World War II, the Finnish government decided that alcohol use was a serious threat to the war effort, and launched a propaganda campaign for a “sober January”. The current Finnish public health campaign is called “dropless January” (or tipaton tammikuu) by the way; “a drop” being a slang term for drink.

In the English speaking world there are many competing names, some better than others. There are even two competing UK fundraising campaigns. “Dry January” is the official Alcohol Concern campaign, but the term is generally used also by people who do no fundraising with their sobriety. Cancer Research run a separate campaign, “Dryathlon”. The participants are called “dryathletes”. Both of these words are copyrighted/trademarked. But they have one major problem as Twitter hashtags: they are often misspelled. So much so in fact, that the most common misspellings of them have also been trending, along with the original words. Not ideal for reaching your audience and maximising your impact.

In the US, “Drynuary” seems to be the most popular term, coined by two writers who have been writing about their experiences since 2007. Someone has also come up with “Banuary”, a word also used for dropping (or banning) pleasures other than booze. And for non-January non-drinkers there is also “Stoptober”. All are at least half-way decent puns I suppose. But I am not at all surprised that “Janopause”, apparently coined by the Daily Mail, never took on as a word in common use. And in the US, “Dryuary” is a fundraising campaign run for the first time in 2015 by Moderation Management. The pronounciation of that word is, well, I’ll just let you try it out for yourself!

So there we have them. Several words for the same thing. If I had to pick one, or make a prediction about longevity, I’d say “Dry January” is my favourite – it is simple, clear and easy to understand – and to use as a hashtag!

Behaviour change tech for good

Last night’s #techforgood/Think, Drink, Do meetup had four good short talks about different aspects of behaviour change. Ed Gardiner gave a very brief introduction to theories of behaviour, and a live illustration of the prisoner’s dilemma game. Which is fine, but I’ve always found ultimatum and dictator games an even better illustration of how far classical economic theory is from reality (in short: people basically give their money away to strangers because it is the right thing to do).

Nick Stanhope from Shift had some thoughtful things to say about providing information versus providing a product or service, and the “three strands of value”: social, user, and financial. You can read more on his blog. Kathleen Collett, also from Shift, then talked about a specific project they’ve been working on, encouraging children to learn abdominal breathing via a video game.

And finally, Rubert Tebb from Paper gave a quick history of their development of the Spruce app, which prods young adults to take three days off drinking each week. Very cool stuff on how to test your as yet unbuilt app using text messages!

Two speakers also talked a little about the experimental designs when testing their products. There were some very good practices discussed like randomization, control groups and so on. But there were also some details I would have liked to hear more about, such as the exact treatment of controls and the analysis of drop-outs. Maybe getting all of these up to the best standards would make the whole exercise completely safe from criticism?

There’s also a nice Storify of the event at BGV.

Funding behaviour change research

Last night’s “Delivering Behaviour Change for Society” event organized by UCL’s Centre for Behaviour Change had some interesting perspectives on where we are with behaviour change research, and where to go next. And how it could be funded.

Chris Norfield (Public Health Strategist: Behaviour Change – London Borough of Hounslow) spoke about the research needs of local authorities. He listed five key areas: effectiveness by demographic groups, testing what works (“strategic trial and error”), digital delivery, combining behaviour change techniques, and addressing multiple behaviours (either one at a time or several at once). Talking to Chris afterwards, I got the feeling that he was a bit skeptical about “online only” approaches, which I agree with. It’s all very nice having “an app for it”, but there are still many other ways of engagement and influence as well.

Adrian Alsop (Director of Research, Economic and Social Research Council) raised a question about “big data” and the future direction of behavioural research. I remain to be fully convinced, but I’m sure there are some interesting things that can be learned from data mining.

Most of the rest of the evening was on the various funding sources for research. It was all very positive, as it sounds like there are funds available both for traditional academic research, and also for some slightly less formal approaches (e.g. by NGOs). And the need for more interaction between academia and industry was mentioned by several speakers, which is of course something I’m in favour of, being in the industry and making a lot of use of academic research.

Thoughts on finally reading Bad Pharma

I finally got round to reading Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Pharma. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the book, but if you have even a passing interest in medicine, public health and the costs of providing it, or your own health, I would highly recommend that you read it too. These are some of the random thoughts it raised in me.

First, you only had to know medical students at university, and see what freebies they got from drug companies, to know that something was up. And I’ve long been interested in publication bias. So I was already at least aware of most of the issues, but the book is still quite a catalogue of all kinds of rogue behaviours by many actors. Pharma companies misbehave of course, but so do drugs regulators around the world (I was probably most surprised by just how useless – and even worse – they are), professional bodies, journals and their editors, patient groups, doctors and academics. There is a lot of money going around, and therefore corruption both big and small, explicit and implicit. Nobody comes out too well in this story.

Second, since my backgroud is in banking, I couldn’t help making comparisons. Bankers misbehave too, no doubt about it. Both industries are heavily regulated, but the regulators have in both instances been fairly comprehensively captured by industry interests. In bankers’ defense, when they fiddle LIBOR rates, some other financial company may lose a few million dollars, but when drug developers intentionally hide adverse data about their products, thousands of people will die. So why is there so much less outcry about pharma? It is probably more complex to understand publication bias than lying about benchmark rates. And the deaths are isolated and hidden from view, whereas the financial crisis was very much visible on every high street.

And finally. In passing, Goldacre says something along the lines of “just because there are issues with medicine, it doesn’t mean that alternative medicine works”. Sure. But the opposite works as well: just because homeopathy doesn’t work, it doesn’t mean that (“traditional” or whatever you want to call it) medicine necessarily works any better. To be clear, I don’t think there’s any physical way that homeopathy works. But you can also be prescribed medicines by your GP that are not much better than placebo, if at all. So when a lazy skeptic rants about homeopathy and “the scientific method”, they should always be reminded that there is science and then there’s cargo cult science. Medicine is beginning to look more and more like a cargo cult than the real thing – there are journals, trials, complex statistics etc, but if it’s all based on smoke and mirrors then what do you really have that you can rely on? My attitude is to pay more attention to studies of how science is actually done: its history and sociology, and not just what scientists say in after-dinner speeches. The reality is always much more messy than “hypothesis, test, replication”.