WASHINGTON - Nine days before Ebola was declared an epidemic, a group of researchers and computer scientists in Boston spotted the hemorrhagic fever beginning to spread in Guinea.
By scouring the Internet for clues from social media, local news reports and other available online data, the algorithm developed by HealthMap had an early picture of the deadly disease moving across West Africa.
"Official agencies tend to be more cautious about these announcements, so public communication tends to lag," said Clark Freifeld, who co-founded HealthMap in 2006 at Boston Children's Hospital.
"We see this as our role to get that information out there quickly even though it may not be validated at the same level as official announcements." It is impossible to know whether earlier detection may have helped contain the spread of Ebola, but many scientists say this type of "big data" approach can be useful in curbing epidemics.
Tracking, predicting epidemics
So far, this approach has been used mainly for detection; but some experts say the technology sector's predictive analytics could be even more useful.
If that is the case, the same kind of technology that helps marketers deliver targeted ads and suggest music or films could be useful in the fight against communicable diseases like Ebola.
"I think big data has a huge potential to help fight not only Ebola, but other disease outbreaks," said Marisa Eisenberg, a mathematical epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who has used data models to study other outbreaks, like the cholera epidemic in Haiti.
Eisenberg said it is possible to get better information by analysing Twitter messages, airline data, emergency calls and other available health data.
"We need to find a way to do these things on a large scale, using real-time data because time is of the essence," she told AFP.
Getting data quickly could enable health officials to get resources and treatment where it is needed to contain disease outbreaks.
In the tech community, Microsoft announced that it would make its cloud computing platform Azure available to researchers battling Ebola.
And multimillion-dollar donations to the effort have come from Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Paul Allen, a Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist, has pledged $100 million.
The efforts come as the number of Ebola infections surpassed 10,000 and the death toll neared 5,000 worldwide, mainly in three West African nations.