Big Data vs. Zika: How Researchers are Leveraging Geographic Information Systems to Save Lives
The outbreak of the Zika virus in Brazil is a major concern around the globe and add the fact that the Olympic Games were in Rio. The World Health Organization (WHO) categorized the disease as an international public health emergency in February; since then, the virus has continued to spread across the Americas, leaving a trail of neurological damage in its wake.
At no time in history, however, has human technology been better prepared to manage this sort of crisis. Researchers are mapping the genome of the mosquito, Aedes aegypti; awareness campaigns have given the disease its own #zapzika hashtag; and sophisticated maps track and monitor the spread using geographic information systems (GIS), using big data to save lives.
GIS allow users to capture, analyze and visualize geographic and spatial data. The concept was first applied to count cases during a cholera outbreak in the 1850s; the resulting map helped health officials track the source to a single public water pump. The process is now exponentially more complicated than going door to door tracking cases of cholera. Modern mapping models are used across many industries, providing insight not only into health issues but also into public works and construction projects, urban planning, agriculture and environmental protection, defense and even marketing strategy.
GIS are supported by the massive amounts of data collected by public and private enterprises, allowing experts to zoom in on specific issues. Data-based systems are only as good as the data that goes into them; fortunately organizations around the world are pooling resources, information and technology to tackle Zika. Companies like IBM and Google are joining hands with groups like UNICEF, WHO, Pacific Disaster Center (PDC) and the CDC to counter the virus. The data they’ve drawn from is diverse:
- Recorded cases of the disease
- Satellite imagery to locate standing bodies of water that provide breeding grounds for the mosquitos that spread the disease
- US Census Data, which provides information on population density and the prevalence of things like window screens and air conditioning
- Rain and weather patterns that allow mosquitos to breed and thrive
- Hospital density and availability of healthcare
- Social media trends and online search frequency of relevant terms
- Biological and ecological research data on the ranges and reproductive patterns of mosquitos
- Seasonal air travel trends and patterns collected from the U.S. Department of Transportation
- Charts of which areas have been sprayed or treated for the disease
The resulting models can be remarkably informative, allowing officials to not only react to the disease but also proactively predict, prevent and treat the spread of the outbreak. They also highlight the importance (and value) of relying on multiple data sources, which can be misleading if viewed individually. For example, the CDC shared a map showing that potential vectors range across nearly half of the continental United States, though historical records show that the likelihood of catching Zika from a mosquito in the US is limited to a handful of southern states. Similarly, while a “small number” of people in Scotland have been diagnosed, officials confirm that those cases are travel-related and that the disease cannot establish itself in the region because of its climate.
By merging multiple data points, these models allow public health officials with limited resources to strategically target those places where the risk is greatest, as with the very specific warning issued for Wynwood, Miami.
Ongoing research and larger databanks promise even greater insight. As Aileen Chang, a physician and professor at George Washington University School of Medicine, told the International Peace Institute, “The next big advancement coming is cloud-based real-time usage of GIS for by-the-minute outbreak and mosquito density mapping to guide control efforts.” With these development, GIS and data analytics will have the power to track Zika and future contagions and save thousands of lives.