While working together in a research group at Children's Hospital, Boston, Clark Freifeld and John Brownstein saw the huge need for more accessible data about infectious diseases. So they began working on a crowdsourcing tool to monitor outbreaks such as Swine Flu and SARS around the world.
"We started this project on nights and weekends," Freifeld tells Fast Company. "We launched in 2006 and this basically became our full-time job." Today, HealthMap uses an hourly web crawler to aggregate reports in seven languages—including Portugese, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese—to help the public and health professionals track disease trends in near real time. It takes data that is publicly available and essentially triggers a chain of activity—as reports become publicly available, HealthMap tracks those reports, and then public health officials around the world can make use of the data as they see fit.
Take the case of Sri Lanka—in late December there were reports of 9 deaths due to swine flu in just one week, an amount that is unusually high. HealthMap tracked those reports and continued tracking and found that in the following weeks there were only 1-2 deaths in those weeks. So the prerogative of HealthMap is just that—to make the information clear and organized through simple visual cues and rapid search capabilities—but the potential uses of the tool go far beyond just perusing information. Health officials all over the world can monitor the data—as can the public—on both smartphone apps and via the website, which helps officials be alert to potential outbreaks or potential spread of disease due to travel.
On a typical day the site receives around 1,000 visits, but when there are major outbreaks that number goes up to 200,000. "When H1N1 was first identified, people saw links to, and postings about, our site and everyone wanted real-time information," says Freifeld.
The iPhone app has seen over 100,000 downloads since April 2009 and they were briefly the number one free health app in the iTunes store. Most of the smartphone app users are in the U.S. and Europe, as smartphones have yet to penetrate deeply some of the developing countries that HealthMap tracks.
And what sets HealthMap apart, says Freifeld, is that "We try to target the system toward the general public, the layperson, whereas other systems target public health officials only. We've pushed the envelope in terms of using google maps, twitter, smart phones, and Facebook. And we've automated the processing pipeline algorithm and now present a user-friendly visualization, along with rapid search through a lot of information."
A few side projects have spun off from HealthMap—such as monitoring mass gatherings like the Olympics, World Cup, and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. In a few cases HealthMap has been able to spot measles outbreaks in a few large gatherings, but for now the focus will remain on infectious disease outbreak everywhere, not just large gatherings—and on securing funding.
Brownstein, a trained epidemiologist from Yale University who is now an Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School, and Freifeld, a software developer and PhD student in biomedical engineering at Boston University, are funded primarily by Google.org, with help from the National Institutes of Health, the CDC, and Health and Human Services. But Google.org is shifting away from funding research-type initiatives. And in the meantime Freifeld has a PhD to complete so he's pretty thankful that he programmed HealthMap to be so automated. That's until the next big outbreak turns up.
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