Web-based tool was first to spot Ebola

Crowd-sourced technology saw the outbreak taking place in real-time, before WHO announcement
By Mike Miliard
11:11 AM
World map

The West African Ebola outbreak – already the largest, longest-lasting such contagion yet – continues to worsen. While the World Health Organization will be essential to stop it, one online database was the first to see it start.

Launched in 2006, HealthMap is a joint project from Harvard Medical School and Boston Children's Hospital.

Initially envisioned as a tool for epidemiologists and public health workers, it wasn't long before the site became popular among the general public as they sought to keep abreast of the H1N1 pandemic of 2009. As the AP reported on Monday, the site has once again proven its mettle, detecting the current Ebola outbreak -- what it first described as a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" -- appearing in Guinea back in March. This was a full nine days before the WHO made a formal announcement.

Run by several dozen contagious disease experts and software developers at Boston Children's, HealthMap "brings together disparate data sources, including online news aggregators, eyewitness reports, expert-curated discussions and validated official reports, to achieve a unified and comprehensive view of the current global state of infectious diseases and their effect on human and animal health."

Updated automatically around the clock, the site "monitors, organizes, integrates, filters, visualizes and disseminates online information about emerging diseases in nine languages, facilitating early detection of global public health threats."

Filtering out "background noise" is critical to getting good data, as Brad Crotty, MD, a clinical informaticist at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (who is unaffiliated with HealthMap), told the Boston Herald: "You can get early signs, but they’re not always right."

The site's accuracy in its real-time aggregation of unique data sources has been a complement to more traditional epidemiology organizations such as WHO.

"It shows some of these informal sources are helping paint a picture of what’s happening that's useful to these public health agencies," HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein told the AP.

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John Fowler deputy information security officer Henry Ford Health System

John Fowler, deputy information security officer at Henry Ford Health System 
(Credit: Henry Ford Health System)

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