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How an Algorithm Detected the Ebola Outbreak a Week Early, and What It Could Do Next


The Ebola virus, a relative of the Marburg virus.

Healthmap, an international mapping tool that detects and tracks diseases, identified the Ebola virus a week before it spread.

Credit: Christopher Bickel/Science

Researchers at Boston Children's Hospital have developed HealthMap, an international mapping tool that detects and tracks diseases. HealthMap's algorithms recently identified the Ebola virus just over a week before it spread.

The tool shows the full timeline of events, including locations, case counts, and original source documentation. "[This instance with] Ebola is some of the most usage we've ever had at the site, and it's raising awareness for infectious disease," says HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein.

In addition, HealthMap captures narratives of case situations, such as patients leaving their containment areas, civil unrest, and other impacts of the outbreak. HealthMap's Web crawler collects information from hundreds of thousands of sources across the Internet, based on keyword searches for disease-related terms.

The HealthMap researchers are continually expanding the list of data sources they access, including data from Wikipedia, Yelp, Twitter, and mobile apps, all of which can provide early signals of disease activity.

HealthMap co-founder Clark Freifeld says the algorithm is 90% accurate at filtering out unwanted data, and it is constantly improving through feedback from analysts.

HealthMap has expanded into 15 languages and uses social media sources to find drivers of disease such as attitudes toward vaccines and animal health. "What's exciting about HealthMap is that we are capturing all this information and making it available and accessible," Freifeld says.

From TechRepublic
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