HealthMap Tracks Ebola’s Footprints Online, Preparing For The Next Big Outbreak

Nidhi Subbaraman | BetaBoston | October 6, 2014

Since March, a group of data-savvy epidemiologists at Boston Children’s Hospital have watched Ebola slowly spread through West Africa, ominously lighting up their dials first as a trickle, then a torrent of mentions on social media and online news reports.  The group, HealthMap, has been steadily ahead of the curve tracking this year’s outbreak. One day, they hope to be a step ahead of the next big disease.

HealthMap’s goal is to get reliable, real-time information to the public, to governments and to public health organizations, about the infectious disease outbreaks that may be near them. In a time when patients are Googling their symptoms before calling in to book an appointment with their doctors, it is a particularly timely mission.  “Our goal is unique in that we strive to create visuals and tools that are available to the general public,” said HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein, an epidemiologist with appointments at Harvard Medical School and Boston Children’s Hospital.

HealthMap mines public data in 15 languages, including tweets, news reports, and public information from government and public health groups, searching for mentions of disease names or symptoms. The data is geocoded when possible, then presented on HealthMap’s map-based visual display, after weeding out noise and false alerts.  HealthMap has been around for eight years, and in that time tracked SARS, H1N1, MERS, the flu, and more. But this year’s Ebola outbreak — the first in West Africa and the most widespread incidence of this disease to date, for biological reasons and other reasons — has been different in many ways...