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Tracking Ebola through online data

Doctors in Guinea

Doctors in protective gear work on March 31, 2014 inside the medical humanitarian group Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders) isolation ward in the southern Guinean town of Gueckedou. A new web tool has been credited with detecting the disease before the World Heath Organization's official alert. 

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization held a briefing on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa endorsing the use of untested drugs. As information comes out about those affected by the virus, more is being learned about its origins and impact, partly thanks to an online tool called HealthMap.

The program uses algorithms to pull information off the web that could inform researchers about disease outbreaks. In fact, it identified the spread of a virus in Guinea nine days before the World Heath Organization announced the Ebola outbreak. 

“HeathMap is essentially a data aggregation tool, organizing content from hundreds of thousands of sources,” says John Brownstein of the Boston Children's Hospital and co-founder of HealthMap.

The project sources material from all over the internet; including news, social media, and health ministry data.

In this particular case, the first public hints of the Ebola outbreak came from local media in Guinea — news stories of mysterious illnesses.

The tool, which has been around since 2006, has evolved to integrate real-time social media based data.  

Of the project's strengths is the fact that the data collected provides a broader awareness of what’s happening at the population level.

 

About the author

Ben Johnson is the host of Marketplace Tech.

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