An online disease tracking tool called HealthMap, developed by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers, has been able to track the spread of Ebola in real time, often before new cases are reported by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to a report in the Boston Globe.
HealthMap uses algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites, local news, government websites, infectious-disease physicians' social networks and other sources to detect and track disease outbreaks. Sophisticated software filters irrelevant data, classifies the relevant information, identifies diseases and maps their locations with the help of experts.
The organization is operated by a group of 45 researchers, epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children’s Hospital. According to an AP/Politico report, HealthMap flagged a "mystery hemorrhagic fever" in forested areas of southeastern Guinea nine days before WHO announced the epidemic proportions of Ebola's presence in the region. Traffic to the site has risen in recent days from those seeking information on the Ebola outbreak devastating West Africa, according to hospital spokeswoman Keri Stedman.
“The news reports and social media posts aren’t always reliable, but in general they provide an up-to-date sense of what’s happening,” said John Brownstein, co-founder of HealthMap and director of the Boston Children’s Hospital Informatics Program, in the Globe story.
This year's Ebola outbreak is the largest and longest ever recorded for the disease, affecting individuals in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria. So far, it has killed more than 950 people, according to various news outlets.