Sunday, March 26, 2006

Digital early-warning health system

TED Prize winner, Dr. Larry Brilliant: public health guru (he helped eradicate smallpox), visionary technologist (co-founded The Well, a legendary online community), activist, author, and founder of the Seva Foundation wants build a powerful new early-warning system to protect our world from some of its worst nightmares. The system is to be called INSTEDD (International Networked System for Total Early Disease Detection).

In his own words, 'I've been in conversations with WHO, CDC, Johns Hopkins and the other universities from the Pandefense "consortium" about using the prize to build a virtual earth with multiple webcrawlers, infobots, comparative historical databases, hi-res coordinated satellite photography, IM and text messaging - for the earliest possible detection of new outbreaks of bird flu, novel diseases like SARS and ebola, as well as new emerging biological threats, whether bio-terror or bio-error.

The world would not today be playing catch up with new pandemics if we had such a system in place 30 years ago; governments would not be able to hide cases of bird flu or genocide, they would not be able to delay reporting cases of polio and the world would have an entirely different view of emerging new communicable diseases if such a system were operative.

I don't know if you know that SARS was first discovered by a group in Canada following up on reports from a webcrawler about cases of fever, even though the first cases were in China.'

Rachel pointed me here. Check it out. It's very interesting.

Declan Butler, the person behind this effort, developed a visualization of avian flu outbreaks in the first online map of each of the more than 1800 individual outbreaks of avian flu in birds that have been reported over the past two years. It also provides a geographical overview of confirmed human cases of infection with the H5N1 influenza virus. There is also an accompanying paper on Nature.com but unfortunately, only for 'Premium plus subscribers'.

Too bad. That's doesn't help but still, it's a great start. Maybe Declan will open the paper up - kudos if he does!

What's interesting about this - apart from the novel idea of spotting outbreaks around the physical world by scanning the information shadow they leave in the digital cyberworld - is that to work it depends critically on having free access to as much information and as many scientific and medical reports as possible.

Indeed, this seems a clear case where it could be claimed that not providing open access in relevant areas - and the range of subjects that are relevant is vast - is actually endangering the lives of millions of people.

Something for publishers and their lawyers to think about, perhaps.

3 Comments:

Blogger wharfcanary said...

There are actually a few of these online pandemic watches, a few of which have been around for some time now. The concept is neither novel nor new. What is interesting is the clash between the medical culture and the political environment - ie free exchange of information vs international security.

Two of the better known ones are:

1) GPHIN is a public agency of the government of Canada.
http://www.phac-aspc.gc.ca/media/nr-rp/2004/2004_gphin-rmispbk_e.html#1
and
2) GOARN (I love the name)
has been around since 1997 and was originally founded by a bunch of medicos to share information about outbreaks - it now serves as the operative arm of WHO. http://www.who.int/csr/outbreaknetwork/en/

Any of these types of searches are often treated dubiously by States concerned about security or even economic impact. On the medical side they are sound - if you are a State trying to cover up an pandemic or a deliberately spread outbreak of a disease, they are not really in your interest.

Just a few thoughts.

9:04 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger J David Galipeau said...

Thx for the comment - True on all point - Larry Brilliant is actually basing his future work on the Canadian version - GPHIN - but the point is - as you say - the access to future information.

My opinion is that the business models applied to this type of information will become very important (unless you have the support and, needs to be said, the money that Larry has).

My prediction is that these unique information models will not be free. IOs have got to increase there quality and reach in order to compete. Do they have the motivation?

In an environment where academic funding is being tightened, IP, and the ability to turn IP into $$s, has becomes very important.

I think that IP based on the 'uniqueness' of data models is starting to rear its head within patent offices around the world.

but that's a different post :-)

10:00 PM, March 28, 2006  
Blogger wharfcanary said...

GPHIN runs on a shoe-string budget, or at least it did until WHO got its hands on it. Although that may still be the case...

I agree that funding is the issue. But then immediately implied are issues of censorship and control of the information.

Is there ever any such thing as free information?

10:36 PM, March 28, 2006  

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