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Some things aren’t meant to go viral

David Bolton, public healthcare expert from the data visualisation company, Qlik | Jan. 30, 2015
How enterprise technology and big data can play a big role in combating and tracking viral outbreaks.

The struggle in West Africa and worldwide to contain Ebola has led to numerous calls from doctors to aid organisations for better use of technology to curb the spread of the virus - whether it is the development of new ways to test for the disease, early-warning systems or methods of communication for frontline healthcare workers. We've become so used to technology providing an answer in all aspects of life, that it only makes sense to turn to it when faced with a crisis.

Indeed, developments in emerging technologies do have a big part to play in the fight against pandemics and disease.  A recent example is how satellite data is being used by researchers to track wind storms and their connection with valley fever and meningitis, two airborne diseases that are transmitted more easily in dusty environments. As in this instance, while most technologies will not provide an out and out cure, they can go a long way to enhancing early detection or indeed, preventing the spread of the disease.    

Let's take big data analytics to start with. While both the healthcare industry and the private sector have been advocates of this technology for some time, it's potential to benefit aid organisations on the ground has remained largely unexplored. Fortunately, things are beginning to change; since the latest outbreak of Ebola in March, many experts have come to the realisation that big data can provide crucial insights which can be used to help fight infectious diseases.    

Hundreds of relevant data sources exist - there's social media data, data on people's movements in and out of sea and air terminals and information about the disease itself. The biggest hurdle is pulling multiple and unstructured data streams from different sources into a format that can be easily analysed, and, importantly, one that allows us to understand how the disease has spread. When disasters or pandemics hit, having the ability to make informed and data-driven decisions, such as where to deploy rapid response teams or community programmes, is critical.  When visualised in the right way, data has the potential to isolate previously unexpected trends, pinpoint vital information gaps and, ultimately, become an indispensable tool in a health worker's armoury. 

Additionally, another  valuable data set is generated by the use of technology itself - mobile phone data or call-data records (CDR), which contain information about when calls are made and received, and roughly where the device is located. While this information doesn't tell you exactly who is infected, it does show patterns of conversation and tracks movement. Most notably, CDR data has been used by researchers to monitor the spread of malaria in Kenya and to ascertain which areas were most likely to be hit next by the disease.


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