How mapping the Ebola outbreak may ease future health crises

BY Vicky Pasquantonio  August 10, 2014 at 10:14 PM EDT

What if a website could spot a global health crisis before health researchers could? 

One may be up to the challenge.

HealthMap is an open-source network that is constantly collecting  information from news reports, health officials, social media and governments around the world to deliver real-time intelligence on a broad range of emerging infectious diseases.

The site, which has been around since 2006, actually pinpointed early signals that helped the World Health Organization determine the West Africa Ebola virus outbreak was occurring. 

“In many parts of the world, we’re dealing with limited public health infrastructure, so in many cases, some the information coming from these social networks, from local news stories is the first time that we know about an event that’s unfolding,” HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein said. And so these sources, what we call “informal surveillance,” are actually helping us understand events on the ground very early on — sometimes earlier than public health can identify these things.”

Watch NewsHour’s Hari Sreenivasan’s full interview with HealthMap co-founders Clark Freifeld and John Brownstein below. 

With the aggregated content passed on to libraries, local health departments and international travelers, Brownstein and fellow co-founder Clark Freifeld hope that HealthMap can lead to better response and management of future health crises.

“Our goal is to give governments and epidemiologists the most accurate and exact information as early as possible, so governments can respond better to infectious diseases,” Brownstein said.

To see health alerts in your area, see the site’s outbreak map here.