Boston Trackers Chart Ebola Outbreak

Lindsay Kalter | BizSmart | August 14, 2014, a high-tech infectious disease tracking system run by Boston epidemiologists, has emerged as a critical tool in the battle against Ebola in West Africa — tracking its rapid and unusual spread ahead of official reports by monitoring thousands of local news and social media sources.  ‘It’s been doubling up for months now,” Harvard Medical School professor John Brownstein, co-founder of HealthMap, said about the rising Ebola numbers, with nearly 2,000 cases and nearly 1,000 deaths. “These things are generally fairly well contained in time and space, but this wasn’t. June is when the cases really started to pile up.”

HealthMap, run by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers, began tracking the current outbreak March 19 when it picked up on local news reports from Kenya.  The group started putting out alerts and feeding information to the World Health Organization, which reported its first confirmed case March 23. Since then, the HealthMap team has created an interactive Ebola map.  “Part of our effort is not just to help governments, but also to give people a better idea of what’s happening,” Brownstein said. “This type of tracking is an important piece to understanding what’s happening in places without very good public health infrastructure.”

When HealthMap was launched in 2006, it was met with some skepticism from some epidemiologists, co-founder Clark Freifeld said, because its information, while fast, is not officially verified like World Health Organization alerts. But, he said, “Now this type of stuff is almost taken for granted in the field, and there’s a lot more people doing work with these sources.”...