In class this week, we have talked a lot about how mapping technology can be used in disasters, such as the Mission 4636 project in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. However, mapping technology can also be very useful in other areas of development, such as health. Online maps can track serious disease outbreaks and therefore help governments and scientists manage these outbreaks. For example, a few years ago the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) launched a mapping tool known as “Predict” that tracks animal diseases. While this might not sounds important, it is actually essential to international development because many of the most serious human disease outbreaks of the last several decades originated in animals. The virus that caused the SARS outbreak and Ebola, for example, are both thought to have come from bats. The USAID mapping project emerged specifically as a response to the H1N1 virus (more commonly known as swine flu), which contained a mixture of genes from both North American and European pigs. Interestingly, the H1N1 virus was never actually detected in pigs before it was detected in humans in Veracruz, Mexico. This is significant because it reflects a serious knowledge gap in the international health community. The goal of USAID’s mapping project is to track animal disease outbreaks that could eventually transform into threats to human public health.
Here is how the “Predict” works: it monitors data from over 50,000 websites, among them the alerts that the World Health Organization sends out, online discussions from experts, local news, and wildlife reports. The system then sorts through all of this information to find the most relevant data and put points on the map. The pin points on the global map are color-coded based on activity level, with yellow being low and red being high. The map can also easily be divided to focus on different regions or priority diseases. It is very user-friendly and open to the public, something that Damien Joly, an associate director for wildlife health monitoring in one of the map’s partner associations, says is essential to the mission of the project.
In my opinion, the “Predict” tool represents an efficient use of mapping technology to track disease and it is important because it focuses on animal disease that could pose a threat to human health, which is often overlooked in international development. The question now is how people will begin to use “Predict,” and whether it will become a tool for the general public, or will mainly stay in the realm of scientists and public health experts. You can read more about the launch of this mapping tool here.