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Online Tool Flagged Ebola Outbreak Before Formal WHO Announcement

timothy posted about 2 months ago | from the conspiracy-for-good dept.

Medicine 35

Taco Cowboy (5327) writes Nine days before the announcement from WHO regarding the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, an online tool had the incident flagged. HealthMap, a team of 45 researchers, epidemiologists and software developers at Boston Children's Hospital founded in 2006, hosting an online tool that uses algorithms to scour tens of thousands of social media sites, local news, government websites, infectious-disease physicians' social networks and other sources to detect and track disease outbreaks. Sophisticated software filters irrelevant data, classifies the relevant information, identifies diseases and maps their locations with the help of experts. The tool was introduced in 2006 with a core audience of public health specialists, but that changed as the system evolved and the public became increasingly hungry for information during the swine flu pandemic. To get a feel of how HealthMap works, in the case of the Ebola outbreak, visit the site.

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WHO ? (0, Offtopic)

rossdee (243626) | about 2 months ago | (#47641293)

I bet the Doctor knew about this years ago, since he can travel in time

Re:WHO ? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641347)

Wow, a Dr. Who reference! Congratulations!

Re:WHO ? (2)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | about 2 months ago | (#47641569)

I see you've managed to reverse the polarity of the humor flow...

Re:WHO ? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641349)

He already knew the outcome.
It was another Swine Flu level scare.
He laughed at the thought of it,, "you humans always overreact to things, you just fail to understand the situation, always shooting and asking questions later."
His companion made him realize that people still died, and suffered awful deaths in the outbreak.
His mood was lowered.
*DUH*
De-de-dooooh deee-doh! Dede-duh, de-de-duh!

Tune in next time for more exciting adventures of Slashdot Who!
Did you know?: Slashdot Who now comes with dubs by Timothy of Slashdot fame.

Time to take out that tool (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641299)

Look what it hath rot

Re:Time to take out that tool (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641421)

wrought

Half story (4, Insightful)

Livius (318358) | about 2 months ago | (#47641335)

If it can make these kinds of predictions without a tonne of false positives, then we have something we can call a tool - otherwise it's just a more efficient but no more reliable form of gossip and rumour.

Re:Half story (2)

QuietLagoon (813062) | about 2 months ago | (#47641411)

Flagging a mysterious outbreak is a lot easier to do than, and carries far less consequence in case of error, than officially announcing an outbreak of the specific disease.

.
It is good the the World Health organization did not jump the gun.

Re:Half story (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641447)

Their automated tool noticed a yearly outbreak of "hurricane" and flagged a jump in "bitcoin" in 2013. Good news, the outbreak of "bieber" in 2010 is slowly getting under control.

Re: Half story (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641523)

I'll bet WHO knew about the outbreak at least 2 weeks before the announcement and took that long to plan for the announcement.

Re:Half story (1)

Phics (934282) | about 2 months ago | (#47641589)

If it can make these kinds of predictions without a tonne of false positives, then we have something we can call a tool - otherwise it's just a more efficient but no more reliable form of gossip and rumour.

Science and medicine use 'tools' that typically have false positives or negatives all the time in order to help rule things out or determine possibilities. The measure of how helpful a tool is does not always hinge on accuracy. Weather forecasting would be a pointless exercise if what we wanted was more than 'gossip' and 'rumour', or what I'm going to call 'conjecture'. Using EEGs to help diagnose seizure disorders frequently offer false negatives - that doesn't mean a wise neurologist will discard test. Using a d-dimer test doesn't tell you that you have a DVT, it merely indicates the possibility, and a positive result suggests that more investigation is warranted.

Predictions highlight points of interest in a landscape that might otherwise look chaotic or homogeneous. Nothing wrong with calling this a tool.

Re:Half story (3, Insightful)

Imrik (148191) | about 2 months ago | (#47641681)

It may be a useful tool, but it's unsurprising if a tool that gets a lot of false positives identifies an outbreak before an official announcement. If it doesn't have all those false positives, then it becomes useful to the general public rather than just to people who can actually figure out if it's an outbreak.

People way overcomplicate this (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 1 month ago | (#47644837)

Just stay out of negroid areas, especially nations. Safety in all categories rises 1000%

Re:Half story (1)

FreedomFirstThenPeac (1235064) | about 1 month ago | (#47648257)

As a mathematician working on data mining where we still see lots of false positives, and with the proliferation of easy tools for fools to do data mining, I wonder how long till we see panics starting days or weeks before the government is willing to announce problems. Imagine New Orleans trying to evacuate itself while the NOAA folks think that the weather that is coming is going to be a standard low level rain event. Imagine then if it turns out that NOAA was right to be calm, FEMA was right to sleep through it, but hundreds of thousands of Wx-refugees are now sitting on freeways trying to find gas. The movie Contagion was a good preview.

Re:Half story (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641737)

If it can make these kinds of predictions without a tonne of false positives, then we have something we can call a tool - otherwise it's just a more efficient but no more reliable form of gossip and rumour.

Whatever! I read redits and subredits for all my reliable Ebola news. WHO has experts when we have "experts"!

Re:Half story (1)

gweihir (88907) | about 2 months ago | (#47641761)

Indeed. The problem is that the general public and most of the press do not have the mental capability to understand "false positive". Otherwise things like "terrorism" and all the other imaginary threats trotted out by the government to keep the population in fear would have zero traction.

Whoopity Dooooooo (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641353)

This app has been around for ages. It's called a tin foil hat.

Subjective (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641375)

The Ebola outbreak, the largest and longest ever recorded for the disease, has so far killed more than 950 people.

950?

Compared to other things like traffic fatalities (33,561 - 2012) [wikipedia.org] it's nothing.

But, Ebola is making all the news.

Re:Subjective (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641423)

In 1918 the flu started with just a few deaths as well. The problem is not how many people have died, though 950 lives is not nothing, but the problem is how many people will die as this runs its course. Usually Ebola is much more deadly and this stops it from spreading very well. This version is much less deadly (about 20%) and is spreading in ways for which no one is prepared.

Re:Subjective (1)

Imrik (148191) | about 2 months ago | (#47641719)

Don't know where you got that figure. The current death rate looks to be around 50%, which is going to go way up as the disease runs its course since it includes newly infected people as survivors. It would be much the same as saying humans only have an 88% mortality rate.

Yawn (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641391)

My 90 year-old grandmother who reads the newspaper every day figured this out 10 days before the WHO announcement.

Maybe Healthmap should hire her as a consultant to get an edge on future outbreaks.

WHO reports verified outbreaks (1)

forand (530402) | about 2 months ago | (#47641453)

This App reports on symptoms and could be very useful to the WHO to determine where they need to look for outbreaks. It do NOT verify , as the WHO, does that a particular disease or strain.

Re:WHO reports verified outbreaks (1)

gl4ss (559668) | about 2 months ago | (#47641561)

it's hardly news that you can scourge information from news about things about to be officially announced..

Only if the criteria for "flagged" are nonspecific (5, Informative)

DRJlaw (946416) | about 2 months ago | (#47641463)

Go to the site. Click to the head of the timeline. Look:

Samples sent to Senegal and France for further tests

So, if you label the "mystery hemorrhagic fever" as ebola, after the fact or without waiting for confirmatory tests, you too can beat the WHO by 9 days.
If you ignore that the WHO's detection regime is the one that has doctors and hospitals sending samples laboratories for confirmatory testing, you too can beat the WHO by 9 days.
If your algorithm identifies dengue fever as ebola based upon "tens of thousands of social media sites, local news, government websites, infectious-disease physicians' social networks and other sources," keep quiet about the fact. Announce your success four months after everyone is sure that it is what you think it is to avoid embarrassing press releases.

This does not appear to be early epidemiological detection by connecting the social-media-dots. This is jumping-the-gun based on early reporting of the processes of an existing early detection program.

9 Days Relative To What? (3, Insightful)

rsmith-mac (639075) | about 2 months ago | (#47641469)

TFA doesn't make this clear which WHO announcement this tool is being compared to, which makes it really hard to judge the effectiveness of HealthMap.

The WHO declared the Ebola outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern only 2 days ago on August 8th. However I am not aware - nor can I find - any record of the WHO declaring an epidemic, as TFA states. (Does the WHO even declare epidemics?)

If HealthMap is being compared to the PHEIC announcement, then for all practical purposes its useless as this outbreak has been going on for some number of weeks now. More likely HealthMap is being compared to an earlier WHO announcement, but without knowing exactly when that is, there's no way to tell if the HealthMap analysis would have actually been of any use.

Re:9 Days Relative To What? (1)

mattwarden (699984) | about 2 months ago | (#47643189)

that's all great, but accepts the premise that it detected anything. i could have a program that emails myself every day reporting an ebola outbreak and eventually i would have completely destroyed both the WHO's announcement speed and these clowns. of course, that is absurd, because the number of false positives is huge. and this is absurd for the same reason. there is zero information about false positive rates, and without that this "news" is saying absolutely nothing. the journalists, as usual, are complete fucking idiots who can't process basic logic, and as a result it seems like they are pretty much reprinting the press release from the group that developed the system (who should, and probably does, know better).

367 in Guinea? What about 15K deaths of pneumonia (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641511)

367 in Guinea? What about 15K deaths of pneumonia and influenza in the same area? And this happens every f*n year!
Globally? Pneumonia kills 1.8 million children every year.
Even in USA, more people are dying of pneumonia and influenza per month http://www.cdc.gov/flu/weekly/overview.htm#Mortality
I do not see any global hysteria caused by this!

Re:367 in Guinea? What about 15K deaths of pneumon (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47641567)

250 000 to 500 000 deaths per year globally.
5-8% of all deaths in USA

Ok so it flagged the current outbreak (1)

the eric conspiracy (20178) | about 2 months ago | (#47641843)

Anyone can flag a lot of shit. The question is how many of the flagging is meaningful and how much of it is like stuff you see on Drudge Report.

In other words how many false positives were output along with this?

Re:Ok so it flagged the current outbreak (1)

efalk (935211) | about 2 months ago | (#47642453)

In other words how many false positives were output along with this?

And how many false negatives?

Re:Ok so it flagged the current outbreak (1)

jc42 (318812) | about 1 month ago | (#47646741)

In other words how many false positives were output along with this?

And how many false negatives?

And true negatives. Why don't we ever hear those reported? Why is this kept a secret?

(Actually, I did once see a news spoof for a "Good News Only" program. It had a long list of people and places that had no disasters of any sort happening. Somehow the idea has never caught on. ;-)

It flagged one outbreak, does that mean it's good? (2)

efalk (935211) | about 2 months ago | (#47642451)

One successful detection of an outbreak is meaningless. This is like how everybody claimed frogs had predicted the earthquake in China a few years ago.

To judge the success of this system, we need three pieces of information:

* How many outbreaks has this system actually flagged?
* How many outbreaks has this system missed (false negatives)?
* How many outbreaks has this system flagged that turned out not to be (false positives)?

Details (1)

OneAhead (1495535) | about 2 months ago | (#47642463)

Not many to find, but here [time.com] 's a source that at least has a date in it.

Clincal (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 2 months ago | (#47643775)

An official declaration of an epidemic has all sorts of effects and consequences. Not to taken lightly. I'm not sure how the decision making works, but Public Health tends to err on the side of making sure they have an epidemic rather than declaring one that isn't.

By the way, I am a practicing chiropractor. I treat patients who have the flu for simultaneous conditions, or for supportive or symptomatic relief or other consequences. Being bedridden causes sore backs; coughing throws ribs out of place, I can do respiratory percussion to help drain lungs, etc. Or I can tell patients when they need to see an MD or go to the ER. This leads up to my point: I can usually tell when we are in a flu epidemic about 2-4 weeks before the official announcement. Any health care provider who sees the general population can. Also anyone in day care, grade school teachers, barbers, or other close physical contact can. The flu is another example of the 'slowness' of announcing official epidemics.

accuracy matters (0)

Anonymous Coward | about a month and a half ago | (#47653583)

A bit more precisely, WHO publicly announced an Ebola outbreak the day following confirmation that Ebola virus was the cause of the observed hemorrhagic fever.

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