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Google zooms in on epidemics

Google zooms in on epidemics

090331_04ict.jpg
090331_04ict.jpg

Mobile phones and Google Earth may hold the key to a coordinated approach to the world’s worst epidemics, according to researchers currently undertaking field trials in Cambodia

Photo by: SOVANN PHILONG

The InSTEDD team in Phnom Penh use new technology to detect impending epidemics.

Bird flu outbreaks continue to swoop on communities today, and while officials have managed to contain the disease, some responses have been uncoordinated, shortsighted and bungled.

And that's why techies are using Google Earth to predict where an outbreak will hit next.

To better coordinate responses to outbreaks, Innovative Support to Emergencies, Diseases and Disasters (InSTEDD) is developing artificial intelligence and text messaging technologies for humanitarian workers.

Cambodia is its first test site.

"I've repeatedly seen coordination failures put people and plans at risk, even when everyone involved was professional, dedicated, well-meaning and working very hard," said Eric Rasmussen, CEO of InSTEDD, in an email from California.

The San Jose-based NGO, funded by Google.org and the Rockefeller Foundation, started its first field laboratory in Cambodia in May 2008.

The group is also holding field trials in Mongolia, Ghana and Bangladesh. Speaking in Phnom Penh, Eduardo Jezierski, vice president of engineering and former Microsoft software developer, said the group was learning from the past.

"We're ... taking lessons from [Hurricane] Katrina and Banda Aceh [the 2004 tsunami], and trying to improve response to disasters," he said.

When a disaster hits, InSTEDD's artificial intelligence software can instantly coordinate several computers with different information, averting the red tape that so often hinders a speedy response.

"Different groups have different information, and the [computer] systems rarely talk to each other. Sometimes the data is outdated or incorrect," Jezierski said.

"This century's challenges will transcend categories, so we need to improve coordination," he added.

Evolving response to epidemics

Among the group's projects, the team in Phnom Penh is developing a software called Evolve, which detects impending epidemics by monitoring satellite maps and the media reports, said Taha Kass-Hout, adviser to InSTEDD.

Then, algorithms suggest the disease's means of spreading - food-borne, water-borne or other - and advises the best course of action.

"The great thing about Evolve is that we can zoom in on a region and source of the disease," Kass-Hout, a former physician at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, told IRIN.

"Traditionally, this takes a lot more time, during which the disease can spread into a full-blown epidemic."

Evolve is now undergoing field trials with the World Health Organisation and the government and is to be released this summer.

The Cambodian lab is also testing GeoChat, a text-messaging program that pinpoints disease cases on a map when relief workers report them from their mobile phones.

With the technology, a command centre can quickly forge a unified response against an epidemic or disaster.

The organisation is working with the Ministry of Health and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) to test the technology, set for release in May.

Designing the technology in the environment in which it is to be used, rather than a computer laboratory, was one of the keys to success, said Karl Brown, associate director of the Rockefeller Foundation. 

"The fact that several of their tools are first of a kind, in that they don't really fit into any existing category of emergency response or public health surveillance tools is proof that they really did design the tools around the problem versus trying to mould the problem to existing tools."

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