CLOSE
Flickr / Mike Grauer Jr / Creative Commons
Flickr / Mike Grauer Jr / Creative Commons

5 Crucial Services I Take for Granted

Flickr / Mike Grauer Jr / Creative Commons
Flickr / Mike Grauer Jr / Creative Commons

Two weeks ago, my hometown of Portland, Oregon was hit with a boil water order, due to possible contamination in our local water supply. In an instant, daily life changed. It was no longer safe to drink from the tap, all ice made for the past few days had to be discarded, and any recently-prepared drinks were also suspect. Many restaurants simply closed their doors, unable to rapidly boil all the water needed for food preparation and cleaning. Even at home, it became much harder to do simple things like grab a glass of water or brush my teeth.

Although Portland's water problem cleared up within 24 hours, it was a stark reminder that seemingly simple services like water are so essential to my daily life that I rarely think about them at all. Here's a look at some services I take for granted. Share your own in the comments!

1. Clean Water from the Tap

On Friday, May 23, Portland told 670,000 residents of the metro area that their water might be contaminated. This came after a series of water tests that showed E. coli and fecal matter contamination in several local reservoirs. Text messages, emails, and phone calls spread through the city, but most people I know saw the alerts first through social media. (I got a cell phone alert five hours after seeing the news on Twitter.)

I dumped all the ice in my freezer, shut off the ice-maker, set up a few pots of water to boil, and went about my business. That night at a comedy show, huge signs said "OUR ICE IS SAFE - FROM AN OUTSIDE VENDOR." At the restaurant nearby (one of those that remained open), a long list of items had to be removed from the menu. By the following morning the boil-water alert was lifted.

While this boil-water business was a hassle (and even a safety hazard, as people can burn or scald themselves when boiling water), it was also a stunning reminder of how easy it still was to get clean water. After all, the taps still ran and the gas lines still fired up the range. It wasn't that bad; the water wasn't full of toxic chemicals, unlike the water my family in West Virginia is still dealing with. I didn't have to walk miles to get clean-ish water; it came to me and I could make it clean by flicking on a burner.

According to charity: water, nearly 1 billion people worldwide don't have access to clean water. The WHO estimates that 3.6% of global disease could be prevented simply by providing access to clean water. And 1.8 million people die every year from diarrheal diseases primarily "attributed to unsafe water supply, inadequate sanitation and hygiene." These are all reminders that water is a vital basic need, and a billion of us don't have access to it.

2. A Clean, Private Toilet

I live in a house that's about a hundred years old. When it was built, it had an outhouse in the back yard because there was no indoor plumbing. Now that's just a memory, with 50s-era indoor plumbing and a pair of bathrooms. It's hard for me to imagine life without a toilet...and the fact that I have my choice of two is truly a luxury.

In other parts of the world, things can be different. In the slums of Pune, India, a single public toilet can serve 1,000 people every day. Here's a video featuring Swapnil Chaturvedi, a toilet cleaner living in Pune, who has set out to provide clean toilets for the urban poor:

See also: 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome, featuring "Mr. Toilet."

3. Access to Vaccines

I live about a mile from a supermarket with a pharmacy inside. It offers a variety of common vaccinations, many of which are free if you have health insurance. Every year I go in and get a flu vaccination, and it's an extremely simple process. They even give me a 10%-off coupon for groceries—quite a bargain.

But not everybody has such easy access to vaccines. Many vaccines require careful "cold chain" treatment to remain effective, and that's a serious challenge in rural areas. There are also disaster scenarios where transporting vaccines can be tricky even in the developed world; I know my local pharmacy would not have trouble keeping up if a flu pandemic struck at the same time as a major earthquake. That's where stockpiles and rapid delivery systems come in.

Around the world, there are massive stockpiles of all sorts of things, including vaccines. Within the U.S., the CDC maintains a Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) system, allowing for emergency aid in the event of attacks, pandemics, natural disasters, you name it. Here's a video describing how it works, and you can read about some surprisingly fascinating stockpiles as well:

4. Libraries

There's a public library down the road from me. It's a good long walk, or a quick bike ride, and inside are plenty of books, computers, and reference librarians. It's an incredible resource, in part because it draws together the community—the library is a unique space in which any community member can show up and learn, free of charge. Libraries are the only public spaces we devote to learning, aside from schools.

Libraries lift communities. Last year, we profiled 4 Innovative Libraries Transforming Lives Around the World. Here's one:

See also: Why Libraries Matter, a short film showing how New York City's public libraries are making a difference for New Yorkers every day.

5. Banking

I rarely go to a physical bank anymore, though they seem to be everywhere. For the most part I just don't need in-person banking services, since my smartphone and bank cards can do all my daily tasks—including depositing checks by taking pictures of them, which still feels like science fiction to me.

But in many parts of the world, banks are simply not available. In South Asia, 78% of working adults are "unbanked," meaning they don't have a bank account at all. Even in the U.S., an estimated 1 in 12 households is unbanked. Technology is helping in many areas, but there's still a long way to go. You can read more about the state of banking around the world in our roundup of Modern Banking Services You Might Take for Granted.

Share Your Story

Have you been reminded lately of a service you might take for granted? Share your story in the comments!

nextArticle.image_alt|e
YouTube / thelostdisney
5 Fun Facts About Health, Toilets, Muppets, and Presidents
YouTube / thelostdisney
YouTube / thelostdisney

We've been running a series about global health since August 2013. Here are five of the most interesting facts we've uncovered since then.

1. There is a "World Toilet Organization" Run By "Mr. Toilet"

Jack Sim goes by "Mr. Toilet." He left the business world to found the WTO—no, not that one, the World Toilet Organization—in 2001. Starting that year, Mr. Toilet declared November 19 "World Toilet Day," and since then has been on a mission to bring sanitation to people in developing countries.

I urge you to drop what you're doing and watch this short video about Mr. Toilet. Yes, he says "shit" a lot. And it's awesome.

In addition to founding the World Toilet Organization and establishing World Toilet Day, Mr. Toilet is working to convince the world to abandon flush toilets, because they waste water. Sim reminds us that flush toilets waste up to 22 liters of water every day. Something to think about next time you debate whether to "let it mellow."

Learn more in 5 Reasons World Toilet Day is Awesome.

2. The Seven Dwarfs Helped Fight Malaria

Disney made an animated film in 1943 called The Winged Scourge featuring the Seven Dwarfs. It was the first in a series of animated propaganda shorts dealing with public health issues, and the only to feature established Disney characters. I'll summarize this ten-minute video for you: mosquitoes transmit malaria, malaria is bad, so let's kill mosquitoes. With help from dwarves. (Snow White doesn't make an appearance.)

Note that around 0:45 in the video, we see that malaria is still established in the United States in the world map. Malaria wasn't eliminated in the U.S. until 1951.

Read more in 8 Surprising Facts About Malaria.

3. George Washington Had Tremendous Health Problems

"Life of George Washington—The Christian Death" by Junius Brutus Stearns, courtesy of the Library of Congress

George Washington is likely the founding father to have suffered from the widest variety of awful diseases, so let's review some of the worst things that happened to him. As a young man, Washington traveled to Barbados with his brother Lawrence in 1751, in an attempt to cure Lawrence of his TB with fresh air. The attempted cure failed, and George became infected with TB in the process. He also managed to pick up smallpox while in Barbados.

George Washington returned from Barbados only to come down with pleurisy, while his brother Lawrence died from TB. George also contracted malaria (see above), and later suffered from dysentery. He died at age 67 while being treated for a throat infection. The treatment involved bleeding him (32 ounces of blood removed—probably what actually killed him), making him gargle vinegar, inducing vomiting, and nearly suffocating him with a molasses/butter/vinegar potion.

Washington's struggle with disease was so epic that PBS produced an entire article describing and discussing his medical problems and how they might have been solved today. (They noted that he also suffered from diphtheria, quinsy, a carbuncle, pneumonia, and epiglottitis. Ouch. Oh yeah, and he lost his teeth to infection and decay, leaving him with just one remaining tooth upon inauguration as president. He lost that one too.)

Check our the history of presidential pain in 6 Awful Illnesses Suffered By US Presidents.

4. Cookie Monster Promotes Handwashing and Healthy Eating

In April 2013, Cookie Monster emphasized the importance of handwashing as part of an effort to promote sanitation work around the world. (2.5 billion people don't have access to toilets!) He granted an interview on the subject, conducted by the Impatient Optimists blog. Here's a snippet:

Impatient Optimists: We know you’re a cookie enthusiast. Can you tell us your cookie eating ritual?

Cookie Monster: Me cookie eating reputation precedes me. Of course me have ritual! First me wash hands. This part very important because it help keep me healthy. Me not sure exactly how long me wash, but me sing the ABCs slowly and when me get to Z, it time to rinse and then look out, om nom nom nom nom. Me also like to share me cookies with Elmo and Big Bird. Little known secret, a birdseed cookie is delicious.

Cookie Monster also famously sang in 2005 that "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food" in an effort to combat obesity. (In the song, various fruits are declared "anytime foods.") In this video, he struggles with the choice between fresh fruit and a delicious cookie:

Cookie Monster also tackled food issues with a 90s-style rap about healthy eating, complete with gold chains. "Nutrition, it really hip!" Me love it.

Read more in 13 Sesame Street Muppets That Make a Difference.

5. One Man Created Eight of the Most Common Vaccines

Image courtesy of Images from the History of Medicine

Although most people have never heard of him, Maurice Hilleman developed dozens of vaccines, including eight vaccines that you may have received. Hilleman developed vaccines for chickenpox, Haemophilus influenzae bacteria, hepatitis A, hepatitis B, measles, meningitis, mumps, and pneumonia (among many others). His vaccines saved millions of lives, and I've received a bunch of them myself! His obituary read, in part (emphasis added):

"Hilleman is one of the true giants of science, medicine and public health in the 20th century," said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

"One can say without hyperbole that Maurice has changed the world," he added.

... "If I had to name a person who has done more for the benefit of human health, with less recognition than anyone else, it would be Maurice Hilleman," Gallo said six years ago. "Maurice should be recognized as the most successful vaccinologist in history."

His obituary is well worth a read, including colorful lines like: "'Montana blood runs very thick,' [Hilleman] said later, 'and chicken blood runs even thicker with me.'" (He grew up on a farm and worked with chickens quite a bit in developing vaccines.) His story is also told in the book Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases.

Read more in 5 Things You Might Not Know About Vaccines.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
YouTube / ONE
How Missed Calls Amplify Farmers' Voices
YouTube / ONE
YouTube / ONE

This week, Farm Radio International (FRI) announced the results of an innovative poll covering thousands of farmers. The biggest surprise was the way farmers voted: by calling a phone number and hanging up.

The survey was conducted in Tanzania, where smallholder farms (small family farms) make up around 75% of all farm production. FRI, an international radio service that partners with local stations, wanted to poll those farmers in order to help make their voices heard by the Tanzanian government. But how do you reach thousands of tiny farms spanning a whole country? In the case of Tanzania, the answer was radio talk shows and basic cell phones.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

The Power of Radio Talk Shows and Cell Phones

Across Tanzania, there are radio stations broadcasting talk shows aimed at farmers. Those programs are already popular for the people the survey aimed to reach, so FRI partnered with five radio stations in different regions across the country. The local presenters added discussion segments to their programs dealing with the poll issues.

Radio broadcasters concluded the poll segments by asking yes/no questions, then giving out phone numbers that voters could dial into. But people generally don't want to waste their cell phone minutes on a poll, so a clever solution came into play: just call the number, then hang up. The missed call is logged, and that log constitutes a vote. This system is called "Beep to Vote," and it's free for voters because the missed call doesn't incur charges for using cell phone minutes. For yes/no questions, there was one phone number for "yes" and another for "no." A total of 8,891 smallholder farmers participated.

In addition to the "Beep to Vote" yes/no questions, the poll included a multiple-choice question that most voters responded to using SMS. Voters texted a single character ("1" for the first option, "2" for the second, and so on) to a specified phone number, and those results were tallied by computer. In addition to the SMS voting method, farmers could opt to make a voice call to an automated system, listen to the five options, and press a number to indicate their choice. 4,372 people responded to the multiple-choice question. The system was also able to send SMS reminders to voters in case they voted for one of the poll questions, but not the others.

The data was crunched in realtime using a system made by Telerivet, so poll workers could watch as votes came in. The system also checked incoming phone numbers so each phone (which roughly equates to each voter, or household) could only vote once per question.

Photo courtesy of ONE / Do Agric

Why This Matters

From a technological perspective, this poll is a brilliant example of choosing the right technology for the job. If a similar poll were conducted targeting middle-schoolers in the United States, it's likely that technologies like YouTube videos and click-to-vote within the video would be used. But for these Tanzanian farmers, the prevalent technologies are radio and cell phones. By putting them together, in a near zero-cost way, FRI was able to collect data that could influence government policies, which in turn could change livesusing just cellphones and radio.

This poll was part of a campaign called Do Agric, focused on encouraging African leaders to invest more in agriculture, in order to improve farming (and in turn, daily life) in Africa. Here's a video about the program:

When the results were announced earlier this week, Tanzania's President Kikwete said, "Action on agriculture has to be today, not tomorrow!" The voices of 8,891 farmers reached the president's ears.

For more on the survey, check out FRI's page on methodology and results.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios