Using Crowdsourcing to Track the Next Viral Disease Outbreak

John Hockenberry | The Takeaway | November 3, 2015

Image Credit-HealthMapLast year's Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people. The pandemic may be diminished, but public health officials think that another major outbreak of infectious disease is fast-approaching, and they’re busy preparing for it. Boston public radio station WGBH recently partnered with The GroundTruth Project and NOVA Next on a series called “Next Outbreak.” As part of the series, they reported on an innovative global online monitoring system called HealthMap, which uses the power of the internet and crowdsourcing to detect and track emerging infectious diseases, and also more common ailments like the flu.

Researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital are the ones behind HealthMap, and they use it to tap into tens of thousands of sources of online data, including social media, news reports, and blogs to curate information about outbreaks. Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and co-founder of HealthMap, says that smarter data collection can help to quickly detect and track emerging infectious diseases, fatal or not.

“Traditional public health is really slowed down by the communication process: People get sick, they’re seen by healthcare providers, they get laboratory confirmed, information flows up the channels to state and local health [agencies], national governments, and then to places like the WHO,” says Dr. Brownstein. “Each one of those stages can take days, weeks, or even months, and that’s the problem if you’re thinking about a virus that can spread around the world in a matter of days.” The HealthMap team looks at a variety of communication channels to undo the existing hierarchy of health information...