In a darkened Boston conference room, staring at projections from a laptop, John Brownstein is far from the front lines of the fight against Ebola. But the epidemiologist’s work may help change the course of the epidemic.
The disease forecaster and his team are combing through news reports, tweets and Facebook posts to anticipate the disease’s next move — and help those on the ground head it off before the crisis grows.
“There are all these places where people are talking about disease outbreaks and the impact of infectious disease, but they were sort of scattered across tens of thousands of sources around the web," Brownstein told NBC News. "We came up with this idea of, what if we just start scraping the Web, organize all the world’s content, bring a one-view approach to all this data and actually build our own surveillance system.”
Brownstein’s HealthMap scours social media and local news from around the globe to locate potential hot spots and display them in an interactive map. In the past, HealthMap has spotted outbreaks ranging from H1N1 swine flu to Dengue fever. Today, the team is building interactive maps that can guide the response to the worst Ebola outbreak ever recorded.
While official numbers from government agencies can take precious time to confirm, Brownstein’s team looks to more immediate, unconventional sources to help target the right communities at the right time.
“It’s enabling us to understand the impact of the disease on society,” Brownstein told NBC News. “Are people fleeing particular towns? Are they trusting the government? Are they responding well to interventions like quarantine?”
The team’s statistical toolkit creates data-driven visuals and can take something as simple as a public tweet and characterize whether the poster is discussing her own illness, someone else’s, or a cluster of cases in a particular neighborhood.
"Having this data in a map form helps us make sure we’re getting to the people in the most need as soon as possible."
Brownstein co-founded the infectious disease surveillance website, headquartered at Boston Children’s Hospital, with software developer Clark Freifeld in 2005. In the current outbreak, the insight of the HealthMap team has been tapped by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help with their own efforts around tracking Ebola in West Africa.
“We’ve been interacting with the CDC based in Liberia and trying to develop not just generalized public maps but also maps that relate to the risk on the ground,” Brownstein said.
Matthew Westercamp, a CDC Epidemic Intelligence Service officer who was on the ground in Liberia, said he worked with HealthMap to help visualize where unexplained deaths were spiking to focus the CDC's efforts with the Liberian health ministry.
“The situation in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, is fluid and having this data in a map form helps us make sure we’re getting to the people in the most need as soon as possible," Westercamp said.
Brownstein says over the past months he’s seen remarkable growth in the number of HealthMap users in the United States — suggesting Americans are really attempting to understand the epidemic. But the flipside of the increased U.S. interest is that there has been a lot of miscommunication about where the risk really lies.
“Our goal has really been to build science around the data that we can collect, but also to educate the general public on where the risk truly is, which is of course in West Africa right now.”