Labelling is a positive strategy. A good label makes a complex concept understandable, actionable, and memorable. These benefits apply negatively when labels stigmatise, discriminate, or cause offence.
Simple Labels (and Math)
In the June 2021 News, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised that regional labels applied to Coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19) variants stigmatised the areas in which they were first reported.
The Indian government recognised that the, “Indian Variant” label for a COVID-19 mutation identified within its borders stigmatised the country. There are repercussions for trade, tourism, and self-image. Reported by Time (May 26, 2021), India highlighted that the regional label is “not scientific” and banned domestic media outlets from publishing the, “Indian Variant” label.
The WHO’s own 2015 guidelines warned against using the region of origin in new pathogen labels. However, colloquially society has responded well to the labelling strategy: it implies knowledge and indicated areas of high threat. It also apportions blame and fear. A former US president exploited this in his inflammatory verbalisations toward the “China virus”.
Labels v. Names
Labels are one or more words arranged in a string. They offer a simplified description of something more complex that names can fail to convey: attributes.
My name is Pat and that tells you little of who I am. At best your own subconscious bias may assume I am male and originate from the “West” although the name ported well across continents used by females and males. “Female” and “Western” are labels: the attributes that may describe me. At work our colleagues add pronoun labels to their names to reinforce their identity and remove introductory confusion. Labels.
WHO does Statistics
RTE’s news report (June 1, 2021) announced the WHO’s response is to label COVID-19 variants using letters from the Greek alphabet.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s coronavirus lead described the strategy as, “simple, easy to say and remember”. That’s exactly what a label should be. Maria added, this is “a system that was chosen following wide consultation and a review of several potential systems”.
Who am I to criticise WHO? Or Maria? Maybe Maria doesn’t have access to the best information architects? And yes, Maria is certain to have used the Greek alphabet as Math symbols in her statistical studies to doctorate level. There’s a subconscious bias if ever I’ve picked on one and no doubt reinforced by her mathematical genius friends and colleagues – perhaps not a Greek among them?
Maria says the WHO’s aim is to remove stigma; “No country should be stigmatised for detecting and reporting variants”. OK. And Greece says, “thanks for stigmatising our beautiful heritage, Maria”? (“Like it’s not enough having our literary art bad-mouthed in every 4th-year Math class”).
Let’s talk about “simple”. In User Experience (UX) ‘Simple’ is a concept of minimal work or thought. Low effort. How often do we read in content that all we have to do is, “simply” do something? “It’s simple”.
‘Simple’ is a label applied to personal experience. WHO are you to judge what I find simple, or not? I don’t write it in copy and dislike reading it. That’s another article right there. Move on.
Have you even read the Greek alphabet, Maria?!
Me and ‘simple’? I’m a colonial and I had to look up Greek alphabet on Wikipedia:
- Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta – OK. I’m doing well although I didn’t expect Gamma before Delta.
- Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta. Wait a minute. These aren’t arranged in a numeric or alphabetical order at all!
- Iota, Kappa… Stop! Wikipedia lost me here. La(m)bda? Like the expensive oxygen sensor in my bike’s exhausts?
We do not find this ‘simple’, Maria. I believe your wide consultation was at a socially distanced mathematician’s awards ceremony.
“Hey, let’s use a universal alphabet”.
“Covid has magnified every existing inequality”, said Melinda Gates in the Guardian Newspaper (September 15, 2020). And now Maria and the WHO want to expose my utter and complete incompetence with an alphabet so complex that only mathematicians can comprehend its ordinal taxonomy, or whatever. Why not go whole hog and use the Glagolitic alphabet (proudly displayed on my office wall)?
If the Greek alphabet is so simple then I must be? I just can’t be bothered to learn it. It’s too much effort. This system (and my lazy attitude) will remove me from any WHO intention to inform me of a sequencing of variants. It will discriminate me from the over-eager mathematicians and leave me bereft of any idea what is going on. I’ll be a statistic reading, “Delta-Bravo book 1, verse 617.2 squiggle-wiggle what; the variant formerly known as Indian?”
Remember the UK Met Office, Met Éireann, and the Dutch KNMI’s great idea to simplify labelling storms using names? How bad could that be? And to ask the public to supply ‘stormy names’? No stigma.
I wrote earlier that labels impart attributes and names do not? Well, I find storm names simply do not help me understand, take action, or remember when a storm with a given name took place. My best recollection is the US hurricane Katrina. What stigma did the females named Katrina receive that day – sometime in history. I don’t recall.
Simple isn’t Thinking
And that’s the point. I don’t recall! A good label shouldn’t make me think! (At least the names appear to follow some Latin alphabetical and gender-parity system, Maria).
The corona virus strain identified in China in late 2019 is labelled in memorable for its COVID-19 label as much as its cruelty:
- Corona Virus (COVI)
- Disease (D)
- Year of origin, or COVI in sequence? (19)
Whatever, the label works. We learned it quickly and we will never forget it. The ’19’ gives a time context and our experience of the disease effects does the rest. We now recognise it without thinking. It has become a word, never mind a label.
Is Simple Simple?
What if the storm labelling convention was better designed for cognition and recall? How ‘simple’ could it have been to use the year, month and incidence number to index a storm.
For example, when was storm Emma that covered Ireland in snow? There’s a hint: it was freezing. February 2018. How about that storm, “2018.02.a”. (Note the Latin alphabet lower-case letter ‘a’, Maria). Sure, there is a regional variable of the exact date a storm ‘hit’ and that’s not the idea. The idea is to label a storm meaningfully using the date it was born or is identified, named, and stigmatises a little boy or girl for the rest of their natural lives. (“Yeah, I’m Gavin. Like the deadly Storm Gavin”. “I don’t recall”, comes the reply.)
Yes, there’s a flaw to my plan. I’m not the educated and conditioned minds of 3 Met offices or member of a Math fan club. My bright idea could sound like the following newscast:
“The storm designated 2021.6.b is due to hit Ireland’s south-west coast. The Met office said, “this storm is much more severe than 2018.02.a and will feel positively tropical when compared”.
Storm names based on person names can stick and take cognitive effort to decode and place in time and space. What remains is a stigma. It takes memory to work out the storm in question. Codified labels may take as much effort to decode and with use, may take less memory. The system needs learned and not the event.
“Ah ha!” Thinks, Maria. “You can learn the Greek alphabet and do algebra”. No. My fabulous and best-in-class idea uses commonly recognised figures that are used in the target nations. Best in class? It’s likely you can do better. Add your thoughts in the comments. (Not you Maria).
Maria, you are so European, bless you. We may love you for that and I am quite sure people living outside Western influences of the Greek alphabet or Math (and this idiot) will not love you for your ‘simple’ labelling convention. Is it something that is internationalised easily?
Do Chinese people use the Greek alphabet? From an answer on Quora (november 11, 2016) by Xiao Chen:
“English-speaking people use a lot non-English letters, most commonly Greek letters, in algebra and it doesn’t cause any problem. For Chinese-speaking people, the only difference is we have to remember an additional set of symbols than English-speaking people – if using α is not an issue for them, using a is not an issue for us.”
Xiao is a programmer. Another bloody mathematician happy to use Greek symbols in their work. Worse and like Maria, Xiao seems to believe English-speaking people understand Greek. I guess that pays me back for early-life comments about matching Chinese and Japanese kanji.
So, yes. The Greek alphabet transports globally to where mathematicians – do whatever it is they do – and that does not make it a universal language of everyday people.
The WHO’s labelling convention is not going to stick, is it? In future news:
- “COVID-19’s Zeta variant first reported in Glasgow has put the city back into a regional lockdown.”
- “We predict storm Klaas to be more windy than Fleur”.
We will still refer to the headline of where the variant was first discovered. It’s what makes news. The idea is dreadful for you and for me – unless you are a mathematician.
The WHO has already had a go at Naming the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and the virus that causes it.
“From a risk communications perspective, using the name SARS can have unintended consequences in terms of creating unnecessary fear for some populations, especially in Asia which was worst affected by the SARS outbreak in 2003…WHO has begun referring to the virus as “the virus responsible for COVID-19” or “the COVID-19 virus”…Neither of these designations are intended as replacements for the official name of the virus as agreed by the ICTV”.
- Coronavirus disease: COVID-19
- Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2: SARS-CoV-2
Accepting the figures 19 and 2 is accepting confusion. Someone should write that out, WHO?
Not so simple then: one name for the scientific community and one for the population. Is this a root-cause to our problem?
It feels similar to our user interface (UI) and experience (UX) design habit of naming components internally using terms that cannot be published? It creates work and can make writing the customer-facing copy more complex than it needs to be. (It keeps me off the streets so I can’t grumble).
Maybe for we the Public we can stick with the COVID-19 label and simply add an integer in series of discovery for each variant? For example, COVID-19.4. At the least an integer should translate well into all languages and keep the mathematicians and Maria happy. Let the scientists do the translating from Public speak into taxonomic purity.
The correct and taxonomic label for the COVID-19 “Indian variant” is B.1.617.2. It uses the numeric versioning discussed just now, so why can’t Maria and her club stick with that? Note the, “B for Bravo”. The WHO want to name it, ‘Delta’. Maria!? What happens when we get to letter “I” (phonetic India), too? I bet Maria gives one Iota.
- Labelling can be a sweet and sour experience.
- Labels are important and convey attributes.
- Names are not great labels.
- Labels need designed to be universal, accurate, and low effort.
- Avoid writing internal jargon for external Labels and names.
- Labels need to translate literally.
- Offense is easily taken and stigma easily given.
- Mathematicians and scientists make crap information architects.