Researchers Track Disease With Google News, Google.org Money

When the next salmonella or avian flu outbreak hits, the internet will have the news first.

But good luck finding that news amid the chatter about Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise or the newly touted benefits of watermelon.

A new website, HealthMap, addresses that challenge by siphoning up text from Google News, the World Health Organization and online discussion groups, then filtering it and boiling it down into mapped data that researchers -- and the public -- can use to track new disease outbreaks, region by region.

"There is so much information on the web about disease outbreaks but it's obscured by garbage and noise," said John Brownstein, a professor at Harvard Medical School, and co-founder of HealthMap.org. "The idea of HealthMap is to get filtered, valuable information to the public and public health community in one freely available resource."

The site's free accessibility could be particularly important in the developing world, where poor public health infrastructure and lack of money has handicapped epidemiological efforts. That's a problem because those regions are exactly where scientists predict new and dangerous diseases are likely to emerge.

HealthMap goes beyond the standard mashup and is more like a small-scale implementation of the long-awaited semantic web. The site, which the researchers describe in the latest issue of open access PLoS Medicine, creates machine-readable public health information from the text indexed by Google News, World Health Organization updates and online listserv discussions.

While aimed at public health workers, HealthMap is also usable by the general public. It locates the outbreaks on a world map and creates a color-coding system that indicates the severity of an outbreak on the basis of news reportage about it. Users of the site can then analyze and visualize the data, gaining unprecedented views of disease outbreaks.

By doing it all with publicly available news sources and low operating costs, the service itself remains free. After a small-scale launch in 2006, the site's model and potential attracted a $450,000 grant last year from Google.org's Predict and Prevent Initiative, which is focused on emerging infectious diseases.

"We really like their approach in that they are trying … a really open platform," said Mark Smolinski, director of Predict and Prevent initiative at Google.org. "Anybody can go in and see what kind of health threats are showing up around the world."

Back in 2006, Google.org head Larry Brilliant told Wired.com about his vision for a service that looks a lot like HealthMap.

"I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street," Brilliant said.

HealthMap doesn't have quite that level of resolution just yet -- outbreaks are only mapped to the state/province level -- but it's no standard Google Maps mashup. The back end of the system does far more than marry data points to locations.

Clark Freifeld, a software developer at Children's Hospital Boston and the technical lead on the project, said that a host of complex algorithms underpin the simple interface that the site's users see.

"It's not only what you see, but what you don't see," Freifeld said.

The site cuts out duplicate stories and other sorts of "noise" from the "signal" -- news of a disease outbreak.

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