Using technology to battle public health crises

Using technology to battle public health crises


The utility of social networks and crowd sourcing in disaster situations became clear in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and Pakistan monsoon flooding, and again in 2011 when Japan was hit by a double earthquake-tsunami disaster. In response to the proven utility to help meet need aid groups intensified efforts integrate ICT tools into existing humanitarian systems to help mount faster disaster relief efforts.

And what if the humanitarian and medical communities can get ahead of an impending health disaster and mount a response before a major epidemic occurs? The creators behind Health Map may have found an answer.

“We were looking for a way to increase transparency and access to all this information that was floating out on the Internet in bits and pieces, and provide anyone – travellers, health care workers, humanitarian groups and governments – with information on emerging health or infectious disease threats.” says co-creator Dr. John Brownstein, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the Harvard Medical School. “The map is one piece in a puzzle of emerging tools all working to change the speed and flow of information, and empower individuals.”

Health Map uses a web crawler to mine, sort and present real-time information on health and infectious disease conditions around the world. The tool covers everything from the H1N1 flu and dengue fever to famine in the Horn of Africa and polio outbreaks Health Map aggregates the information by disease and generates a global map displaying emerging incidents with data available in nine languages.

The site pulls information from individual users through social media like Twitter, government sites, media reports and medical personnel, as well as major organizational sources including the World Health Organization, the International Society for Infectious Diseases and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

Over 100,000 people have downloaded Health Map’s mobile app, Outbreaks Near Me, which allows users to leverage global positioning tools to avoid potential dangers or use their smartphones to report incidents.

Internet giant Google, Inc. recently partnered with Health Map and the Centers for Disease Control to create Dengue Trends to act as an early warning system for health professionals working to combat the tropical disease which infects around 500 million people every year.

But there are still gaps in the Health Map system, and the creators do not see the tool as a replacement for existing government reporting systems but more as an evolution in the way public health concerns are addressed.

“Places without a strong media or widespread Internet access pose challenges in that while the information is good, the depth of reporting just isn’t there,” explains Dr. Brownstein.

Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East are regions most affected by the lack of reporting and Health Map has turned to professional networks to try and fill the gaps.


Stakeholders from across the spectrum have expressed support for universal broadband, with the United Nations calling Internet access a human right. ICT tools enable individual users to raise their voices onto a global stage and in many countries with repressive governments increase their efforts to push for reforms. It also, says the United Nations, contributes to meeting poverty-reduction and other development goals.


Using ICT tools to address public health concerns is an area that has drawn the attention of major multinationals including Procter & Gamble, AT&T and Verizon, and funders like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the United Stated Agency for International Development. Mobile health – or mHealth, which uses cellular telephones and other ICT tools to provide health care, can help medical professionals and their patients overcome barriers created by infrastructure, access and economics.


“Academia, NGOs and the for-profit sectors all see the huge opportunities in developing technology and mobile health applications,” says Dr. Brownstein. “Ideally eventually all the tools we’ve developed so far will simply become obsolete.”


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