Dr. John Brownstein, left, and Maia Majumder work on tracking outbreaks at HealthMap.

Credit: Elizabeth Ross / WGBH News

Infectious Disease Cyber Detectives Keep Governments Accountable

October 29, 2015

When it comes to tracking emerging infectious diseases, there is a gold mine of online data, but it takes something of a cyber-detective to dig into it. At Boston Children’s Hospital, researchers tap into tens of thousands of sources including social media, news reports and blogs.

“We’re constantly looking for keywords about disease and outbreaks and epidemics in 15 different languages, and pulling out those articles,” said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Brownstein said he and his team use “a combination of tools — machine learning, natural language processing — to essentially uncover important events and filter out the noise.”

The epidemiologist is the co-founder of HealthMap a website that lets you see the results of all the digital disease surveillance spread out on a map of the world. Bright-colored circles show hotspots for hundreds of different diseases.

When it comes to detecting an outbreak, Brownstein says HealthMap is often ahead of the curve. Last year it flagged early reports of a mysterious fever well before any official acknowledgment of an Ebola outbreak.

“We’ve seen this over and over again,” he said. “Some of these informal sources, whether they’re local news media or social media, they are often the first by days, and sometimes even by weeks, to tell us what’s happening on the ground.”

Brownstein says a record number of users flocked to HealthMap during the Ebola pandemic, but he believes what helps the site give critical real-time information are the contributions from visitors who share what they’re seeing in their own communities.

“We’re very interested in bringing the public back into public health,” Brownstein said. “The idea is that an individual doesn’t just have to be a data stream, but they can be actively involved in providing information to public health agencies.”

That is why Brownstein and his team developed the app Outbreaks Near Me.

"You can actually put in information and attach a picture and send it to us, and we would review that posting and put it on the map,” Brownstein said, pulling out his phone to show me what has been recently posted.

“So we can actually zoom into, for instance, the Boston area and see what’s being reported," he said. "We can open up an alert and see, for instance, that we’ve seen West Nile virus confirmed in the Boston area.”

Following the success of Outbreaks Near Me, the team developed another app specifically for flu surveillance called Flu Near You which encourages users to track and share their own symptoms. That data is made available to health officials who can monitor flu trends down to the zip code.

But the real power of getting citizens engaged is holding governments accountable.

“We really like to make things as open and public as possible,” said Maia Majumder, an MIT graduate student who does research at HealthMap.

Majumder recently witnessed the power of ordinary citizens when she was compiling data about the MERS outbreak in South Korea. At first the South Korean government didn’t want to identify the hospitals that had MERS cases.

“South Korean civilians were basically going around from hospital to hospital trying to investigate on their own, really like an ad hoc public health team, trying to see whether they had MERS cases or not,” she said.

These civilians published their findings through an online MERS map, and that map forced the government to officially release the names of the hospitals with the disease.

But some of the biggest benefits of HealthMap are yet to come, through something called forecasting.

“Forecasting is a tool that’s been used of course in weather and climate, and we think that disease should be viewed in a very similar way,” Brownstein said.

As Brownstein and his team continue to compile disease data, they hope to use disease forecasts to predict future outbreaks with greater accuracy.

“We think that understanding disease forecasts is critical to better preparing, better mitigating risks, both at the public health level but also at the citizen level,” he said. “If we understand what risks are coming, we can do a better job to prepare and prevent.”

Next Outbreak is a collaboration between The GroundTruth Project and NOVA Next.


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