WASHINGTON, USA: Nine days before Ebola was declared an epidemic, a group of researchers and computer scientists in Boston spotted the haemorrhagic fever starting to spread in Guinea.
Healthmap's Clark Freifeld says an algorithm developed to mine health data is useful for detecting early warnings of major disease outbreaks. Image: Twitter
By scouring the Internet for clues from social media, local news reports and other available online data, the algorithm developed by HealthMap gave an early picture of the deadly disease moving across West Africa.
"Official agencies tend to be more cautious about these announcements, so public communication tends to lag," said Clark Freifeld, who co-founded HealthMap in 2006 at Boston Children's Hospital.
"Our role is to get that information out there quickly even though it may not be validated to the same degree as official announcements," Freifeld said.
It is impossible to know whether earlier detection may have helped contain the spread of Ebola, but many scientists say this "big data" approach can be useful in curbing epidemics. So far, this approach has been used mainly for detection; but some experts say the technology sector's predictive analytics could be even more useful.
Technology that delivers ads can track epidemics
The same kind of technology used by marketers to deliver targeted advertising music or films could be useful in the fight against communicable diseases.
Michigan University's Marisa Eisenberg says the same technology used to deliver advertising to individual users can be used to track health epidemics and disease outbreaks. Image: Twitter
"I think big data has a huge potential to help fight not only Ebola, but other diseases," said Marisa Eisenberg, a mathematical epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who has used data models to study other outbreaks, like the cholera epidemic in Haiti.
Eisenberg said it is possible to get better information by analysing Twitter messages, airline data, emergency calls and other available health data.
"We need to find a way to do these things on a large scale, using real-time data because time is of the essence," she told AFP.
In the technology community, Microsoft announced that it would make its cloud computing platform Azure available to researchers battling Ebola.
Millions donated to Ebola cause
And multimillion-dollar donations to the effort have come from Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, has pledged $100m.
The efforts come as the number of Ebola infections climbed above 10,000 and the death toll neared 5,000 worldwide, mainly in three West African nations.
But Silicon Valley needs to do more to keep Ebola from spiraling out of control, said Vivek Wadhwa, a Stanford University Research Fellow and faculty member at California's Singularity University, which promotes innovative technologies.
Vivek Wadhwa, a Research Fellow at Stanford University says that technology has the ability to examine problems from all different sides, virtually simultaneously making it useful in efforts to stem the spread of the Ebola virus. Image: C-Pet
"The technology sector does amazing things, because they take a big problem and attack it from all sides," Wadhwa told AFP. But he said entrepreneurs involved in health technology are frustrated because no one is listening to them.
There are already some technological tools that could be deployed in the Ebola fight, in areas such as software diagnostics and vaccine delivery as well as cloud-based data analysis.
"Just as airlines mine travel data to predict which flights are going to be full and to set airfares, data scientists can mine travel, epidemic and passenger-load data to determine the probability of a passenger being a disease carrier," Wadhwa said in a blog post.
This effort has the potential to succeed in part due to the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world, and growing participation in networks like Twitter and Facebook, where posts can be analysed for clues about disease.
Speed is key to curbing outbreaks
HealthMap collects and interprets data in 15 languages, and uses both software and human experts for more detailed analysis. It has previously tracked the H1N1 virus and can monitor the movement of other diseases.
"One of the challenges is that when a signal first emerges you don't know if it's going to turn into an international problem," Freifeld said.
Yet some relatively simple efforts using technology have apparently been used successfully. Nigerian Minister of Communication Technology Omobola Johnson told a conference that technology and social media were key to her country being declared Ebola-free.
"A combination of the use of an Android app, Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in Nigeria's fight to contain the Ebola virus," Johnson said.
"With Ebola, time is very important. The phone app helped in reducing reporting times of infections by 75%. Test results were scanned to tablet computers and uploaded to emergency databases so field teams got text message alerts on their phones informing them of the results," she said.
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