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Weekly Trend: How Tech Can Help Stop Ebola

With the first case diagnosed in the United States reported earlier this week, the Ebola virus is literally hitting closer to home for Americans. Companies outside of the medical realm are now scrambling to help stop the spread of the disease. Though technological shortcomings are partly to blame for the Dallas hospital’s mishandling of the first diagnosis, tech companies have the potential to play an important role in reducing the Ebola threat.

In order to quell this epidemic, scientists, medical professionals, researchers and government officials look toward technology to provide solutions. The ability to compile and analyze enormous amounts of data that ranges from self-reports on disease outbreaks to information on the movement of people suggests that new technologies can help combat the spread of Ebola. But how exactly does the use of data collection, algorithmic analysis and normalization of findings assist people in their efforts to stop the Ebola outbreak in its tracks?

Ironically, HealthMap, which utilizes online information in order to detect and monitor disease outbreak, identified a “mystery hemorrhagic fever,” before the outbreak was even identified as Ebola. This disease-seeking algorithm proves that data can travel faster than disease—but is it too late to utilize this technology?

The answer from the tech community is a resounding “no.”

While HealthMap utilized online resources to compile a meaningful data set, other technologies have the potential to provide useful information to researchers and scientists as well. Data pulled from cellphones is another technological resource that has been used to study the spread of Ebola. Flowminder, a Swedish nonprofit dedicated to solving “critical gaps in global public health,” analyzed data pulled from a West African mobile carrier with the intention of pinpointing locations of increased risk of outbreak based on previous occurrences. Because cellphone carriers provide huge databases of information on “population movements and social patterns,” utilizing this technology could be extremely beneficial in the study of Ebola and similar epidemics.

The possibility to use data analytics to combat Ebola is not limited to health-related companies. Defense contractors such as Modus Operandi have an opportunity to utilize big data analytics, which seemingly has nothing to do with the medical field, in order to track and stop the epidemic. Though traditionally used by defense contractors to track terrorists, data analytics may be a helpful tool in preventing the spread of Ebola. Companies like Modus Operandi can compile and normalize data from a myriad of sources that would otherwise be an incomprehensible set of information.

The result would be a clean and understandable data set that illustrates the answers to questions regarding where, how and through whom Ebola has traveled in a given space and time. Algorithms can then be used to reveal connections between people, places and the spread of the disease. Use of such data analytics will enable medical professionals and researchers across different fields to better communicate with one another and work toward solutions.

While less complex than using data analytics and algorithms, simply sharing information via different technological platforms could play a vital role in stopping this epidemic. Technology provides the opportunity to disseminate vital information about the Ebola virus to otherwise unreachable populations. Cellphones have become ubiquitous even in impoverished communities and offer new potential to educate civilians on public health and disease prevention. The Centers for Disease Control has already developed a mobile app and infographics in order to educate both health workers and average citizens about the virus and proper conduct when potentially exposed.

From simple to complex ideas, innovators are utilizing technology in order to aid medical professionals in the fight to stop the Ebola virus. Though researchers are in the process of developing treatments and vaccines for the virus, these solutions are months, if not years, away from being introduced to the public. As new reports feature increasingly dire predictions about the outbreak, it has become apparent that the global community must take aggressive action without delay. While it is clear that the most powerful solution to the Ebola outbreak will be directly related to medical revelations and advances, technology will undoubtedly play a significant role.

Carolyn Peyser

Carolyn is a senior at Tufts University majoring in Sociology and minoring in Communications and Media Studies.