Predicting and Preventing the Spread of Infectious Disease with Google Earth

world malaria

In the film Minority Report, PreCrime police combine psychic premonitions with search and surveillance technology to prevent murders before they occur, resulting in a homicide-free society. Could a similar approach ultimately eradicate infectious diseases like malaria?

A recent project at UC San Francisco to leverage Google Earth is aiming to do just that.

As part of the Malaria Elimination Initiative, researchers at the UCSF Global Health Group are creating an online prediction platform to assess where malaria is likely to be transmitted next. When malaria cases are identified, local healthcare workers can upload time and location data on infected patients. These data will be combined with real-time satellite tracking of weather and environmental conditions as well as 40 years of historic data within Google Earth Engine.

The result? Mapping of the exact regions where new cases of the disease are anticipated.

google earth malariaPredictive mapping will enable agencies to be highly efficient and targeted with precautionary measures, including distributing bed nets, spraying insecticides, or providing antimalarial drugs to specific locations rather than widespread and costly overkill efforts. “With these maps, health workers will know exactly where to target their scarce resources,” stated Global Health Sciences assistant professor Hugh Sturrock in the release. “That way, they can keep fighting the disease until it’s eliminated within their borders.”

Experts at the university believe that with proper funding and intervention, countries could eliminate malaria within two decades.

Beyond containment alone, the platform will assist researchers and healthcare workers focused on unraveling the connection between climate variables, such as degree of vegetation and rainfall, and disease proliferation in hopes that underlying factors can be utilized for preventative public health. For a disease like malaria, which kills 600,000 people annually, mostly children, in Africa and Southeast Asia, this is vital not only today but in the near future as climate shifting is expected to introduce malaria into new regions.

Rebecca Moore, the head of Google Earth Outreach–which assists nonprofits anxious to utilize Google’s mapping technology–said, “We have this enormous scale of computing power that, if it’s guided in the right way, could really make some breakthroughs.” To develop the new crowdsourced platform, UCSF will receive $100,000 from Google’s program.

The tool will be first tested in the small Southern African country of Swaziland where recent efforts to eliminate malaria have reduced the number of cases by 74% since 2000 and contained the disease to a few small areas. If effective, it will be distributed to other regions in need.

Related infectious diseases could also be similarly tracked with this predictive platform. As the recent Ebola outbreak demonstrates, knowing where a disease is going to pop up next in real time is essential to prevention and containment.

In recent years, other efforts to track disease using Google Earth have been insightful. Avian flu was successfully tracked into a Google “supermap” in 2007 and in 2011, researchers backed by the Wellcome Trust use gene sequencing and GPS data to map the spread of typhoid from its source in Nepal using Google Earth. Google itself has set up a designated site to track flu trends. And most recently, the Ebola outbreak is being mapped in Google Earth.

dengue fever

Digital surveillance of disease has been found to detect infectious diseases, such as Dengue Fever, up to two weeks earlier than traditional healthcare reporting systems. So a platform that crowdsources information from workers on the front lines of disease and combines it with publicly accessible data could likely narrow the lag even moreso.

Considering how powerful Google Earth has been for making geodata accessible to researchers and the public to date, the platform could grow into an enormously vital tool for public health as even more information is connected. Akin to Minority Report‘s precrimes, a predictive platform that also leverages real-time surveillance footage as well as activities described on social media could create a map of “predisease” incidents before they even happened.

As society becomes blanketed in sensors and the Internet of Things connects objects to the web, the massive amount of data available on everything crawling around on the surface of the planet will undoubtedly make it easier to thwart disease trajectory from Patient Zero, perhaps even before the moment of initial infection. Even though privacy issues in this globally connected future will undoubtedly abound, if pandemic scenarios (or recent zombie films) have taught us anything it’s that the world stands on the precipice of catastrophic human loss in the face of virulent disease unless early containment safeguards are put in place.

Considering the stakes involved with global public health, UCSF’s new platform can’t come soon enough.

[Image credits: UCSF, US Army Africa/Flickr, Royal Society Publishing]

David J. Hill
David J. Hill
David started writing for Singularity Hub in 2011 and served as editor-in-chief of the site from 2014 to 2017 and SU vice president of faculty, content, and curriculum from 2017 to 2019. His interests cover digital education, publishing, and media, but he'll always be a chemist at heart.
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