Diseases Mapped Online

“It’s a disease-mining system that uses the Internet to look for outbreaks going on around the world, bringing all this information together in one view,” explains John Brownstein, co-founder of HealthMap. Launched as an experimental project in 2006, HealthMap has expanded its surveillance reach and now mines the Internet in English, Chinese, Spanish, Russian and French. Additional languages such as Hindi and Arabic are under development.

The programme’s main information sources include online news wires, RSS feeds, expert-curated accounts, and official alerts from the WHO. HealthMap classifies the collected data by location and disease, generating interactive geographic maps and color-coding alerts based on how “hot” they are - in other words, red means that there has been a lot of recent news in one particular area. “Situational awareness windows” - pop-ups that appear when a particular state or city on the map is highlighted - provide links to news reports on an outbreak in the area.

The researchers are continuing to tinker with “machine learning” tools to avoid false alarms, so that for instance, the programme does not mistake information on a herpes-infected horse named Antarctica for an actual herpes outbreak in Earth’s southernmost continent; it also understands that the word “fever” in the phrase “football fever in the UK” is not related to a disease. It is like a spam filter that remembers bad e-mails, the researchers explain, and a continuous process.

HealthMap can facilitate early disease warnings even when governments want to keep things under wraps, so the scientists. For example, public health agencies in China were aware of SARS well before the virus made global headlines. “We’ve traced the earliest reports of SARS back to Internet chat rooms where people were talking about this problem going on in Guangdong Province,” says Brownstein. “But nobody paid much attention at that point.”

COMPAMED.de; Source: Children's Hospital Boston