Dr John Brownstein and software developer Clark Freifeld, at the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program in Boston, developed HEALTHmap.org after seeing flaws in the current system for tracking outbreaks.
While working on a state-funded program to track disease outbreaks in Massachusetts, the two discovered some inconsistencies in how information is reported. Some sources, such as ProMed-mail, provide very specific data that is verified by medical experts, but the process can be lengthy. At the other extreme, newspaper articles and blog entries come out far more quickly, but they are more likely to contain errors such as unconfirmed reports about avian flu infections in a country.
“You always have this trade-off between timeliness and specificity,” said Brownstein.
To cheat the trade-off, the pair developed a site that collects data from various sources: the slow and accurate as well as the fast and approximate. Freifeld created a computer program that scans text from RSS news feeds and web page “screen scrapes” to find information about a disease and where it was reported. Using Google Maps, the site places icons that correspond to individual disease reports.
Visitors can cut the data in various ways. For example, they can display information for a single disease such as dengue fever, all 53 diseases in the database or any number in between. They can choose which and how many of the four health news sources to display: ProMed-mail, the World Health Organization, Eurosurveillance and Google News. They can also filter reports by country.
The two are already planning expansions, such as adding more data sources. For example, Freifeld is now trying to integrate blog search engines. And they will expand the geographical data. The information on the site currently stops at the national scale, but Brownstein says they will soon go “at least to the city level.” He said they will also add “temporal resolution” — for example providing animations that show how influenza has spread over the previous month.