The world has turned its attention to ebola as the deadly disease continues to spread, mostly in west Africa. Already, the virus has killed nearly 5,000 people in this latest outbreak, but the situation may be even more dire than that. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is even predicting that as many as 1.4 million people will be infected by January 2015. With a shockingly high mortality rate, this year’s ebola outbreak may be the most devastating one ever recorded. Health workers from around the globe are looking for help in any way to fight the disease, and one technology has stepped up. Big data, while most often used in businesses, is now being utilized by doctors and researchers as they race to contain the disease and save lives.

The very nature of big data can be effective in helping healthcare workers reach their goals. Big data essentially consists of collecting large amounts of data from a large variety of sources. Once the data is collected and organized, big data analytics takes over, mining that data and finding previously unseen patterns and trends that would take humans years to discover, if they could do it at all. Big data analytics also removes any data that is deemed unimportant or irrelevant, further helping in organizing the data that matters.

The only way big data can be effective in fighting ebola is by collecting the necessary data from as many sources as possible, or what’s known as multi-center ingest. This technique and the technology to accomplish it were simply not possible even a few years ago. Now, researchers and data experts can collect information from social media, mobile phones, hospital records, flight records, and even media reports. From there, they can more accurately predict where the disease may spread, which is a vital step in stopping an ongoing outbreak.

Mobile records in particular are offering researchers a deeper level of insight in predicting the spread of ebola. Even some of the least wealthy African countries have high ownership of mobile phones, which can be valuable tools when fighting the disease. Using mobile mapping, researchers are taking data from more than 150,000 mobile phones and charting where regional populations are moving. This not only helps medical workers better predict where the disease might spread, it also lets them know where would be the best areas to send resources so those who have contracted the disease can receive help as quickly as possible. Mobile mapping has run into some limitations for now. The main problem is that tracking regional movements is done based on historic data, not done in real-time, which would be much more effective.

Big data is also playing an important role in helping medical workers research a cure. For now, the ebola virus has no known cure–one of the many reasons it’s so deadly. Big data, however, may help researchers with a breakthrough. Recently, Microsoft announced that it would be offering special cloud tools that would allow experts from all over the world to share information about their ebola research. By collaborating using these cloud computing tools, researchers will be able to pool all their big data and hopefully discover a vaccine that will save lives. This can only be done by using all the available data to help scientists understand more about the disease and how best to treat it.

While big data is a highly useful tool, it’s not without its weaknesses. Skeptics point to Google’s recent inability to accurately predict flu outbreaks based on social media data and other information found on the web. Critics are also quick to note how big data wasn’t able to predict early warning signs of this year’s ebola outbreak, instead pointing out is was through traditional means like governmental reports and media outlets that word of the disease’s spread grew. Proponents of big data counter by saying big data analytics played a key role in the relief operations involved in a 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti and the spread of malaria in Kenya. In any case, it’s important to recognize that big data is only a tool, and human minds and expertise are still needed to interpret the results and make important decisions regarding strategy in fighting any disease.

However it’s used, big data is one more ingredient researchers need in order to control and stop the spread of ebola. With more experts weighing in with their own data, a cure may even be found. Given enough time, big data may help in consigning ebola to a relic of the past, in turn promoting better health in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.

Rik DelgadoRick Delgado- I’ve been blessed to have a successful career and have recently taken a step back to pursue my passion of freelance writing. I love to write about new technologies and keeping ourselves secure in a changing digital landscape. I occasionally write articles for several companies, including Dell.


(Image credit: NIAID)

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