The current outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa is the worst ever in recorded history. The incurable and poorly understood virus has now claimed the lives of at least 950 people, killing at least 60% of those whom it infects. While it appeared to come from nowhere, in actual fact, the disease was being tracked via the internet, almost from its very first victim.
A crowdsourcing project called HealthMap managed to detect abnormal activity in the West African region long before scientists and health officials proclaimed an Ebola outbreak. Through data the project collected they found evidence of a “mystery hemorrhagic fever” which had been killing people in South East Guinea. It was not until a full 9 days later that the World Health Organisation (WHO) went public with information on the outbreak.
HealthMap is an interactive map of disease outbreaks across the world. Started in 2006 by a group of researchers at the Boston Children's Hospital, it is now operated by a group of 45 researchers and epidemiologists. The map aims to be a “global leader in utilizing online informal sources for disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats.”
Data for the map is sourced from freely available information, such as news reports and government statements, as well as information reported by doctors on the ground. This information is then plotted on a zoomable world map. Threats are then color-coded based on the level of disease in a local area or the overall level of disease activity within a country.
While this forewarning was not enough to stop the emergence of the current Ebola crisis in West Africa, the fact that technology could detect disease anomalies in even under-developed (and under-connected) parts of the world is promising. If scientists could better monitor this sort of data, they may in the future be able to curtail potential outbreaks before they have spread too far from their origin.
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