An online system based at Boston Children’s Hospital has been monitoring the spread of the Ebola virus outbreak since March 14, when a Guinean news outlet reported a “strange fever” in the country’s Macenta prefecture.
HealthMap, cofounded by Clark Freifeld SM ’10, uses an automated text-processing algorithm to parse data in 15 languages gathered from a variety of online sources, including news reports, social media, and government websites, and displays the information on Google Maps. A team of researchers reviews and corrects information for accuracy. Freifeld explained the process in a recent interview with Scientific American: “We have the technical framework in place to make [posting information] easier, but our approach has always been a human-in-the-loop model.”
HealthMap discovered the outbreak of a “mystery hemorrhagic fever” nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Following the WHO announcement on March 22, HealthMap released a tool showing a full timeline of events, locations of outbreaks, and the number of case counts.
Since going live in July, the timeline has been viewed more than one million times. MIT graduate student Maimuna Majumder is a member of the Ebola project team, focused on modeling caseload projections and fatality estimations.
Since its debut in 2006, HealthMap has tracked a number of high-profile diseases, most notably the H1N1flu pandemic in 2009. Current projects include tracking and predicting the spread of the common flu virus, and using Yelp reviews to identify outbreaks of food poisoning.
The HealthMap team considers its work to be an early-warning system that provides accurate information to the public and health officials in real time. The company continues to improve its algorithm, with the hope that one day this work will prevent the next pandemic.
Watch: How HealthMap works.