How Big Data Improved Ebola Control

The Zika virus is in the news these days, but not long ago the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was making headlines. Resulting in more than 30,000 reported cases and 10,000 deaths over several months, the Ebola outbreak was one of the most covered world health crises in recent years. And the response was hampered, especially at first, by a lack of coordination and communication by the many organizations responding to the epidemic, and a lack of mobile surveillance.

Plodding with Paper; Accelerating with Mobile

One of the great obstacles in dealing with the Ebola outbreak was in monitoring the number and location of people infected with the virus, a process known as disease “surveillance”. As with most such activities in poor countries, initial Ebola surveillance was done by a relatively small number of workers, collecting and submitting data via paper forms.

Dr. Joel Selanikio of Magpi in the hot zone

Magpi’s Dr. Selanikio in the hot zone

This process is hardly adequate for the normal public health challenges in developing countries, and it simply could not keep up with the speed with which Ebola was spreading. As a result, public health officials had a very incomplete understanding of Ebola’s extent throughout the region.

Recognizing the difficulty and expense of expanding a paper-based system – which would still suffer from long-delays inherent in the use of paper – staff at the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) worked to build a more robust and widespread mobile surveillance network, using the basic text messaging data collection functionality built into Magpi, instead of paper forms.

Using that approach, hundreds of local health reporters could instantly submit data via text message on a daily base using their existing cell phones (mostly very inexpensive “feature” phones) at a very low cost. A report would change from being a paper form to a single text message consisting of a code word and a number to represent suspected cases seen over the preceding 24-hour period.

Faster, Cheaper, Easier: the Benefits of Mobile Surveillance

The benefits to this technological approach are easily apparent.  Mostly obviously, it is much, much faster: a text message is routed into the database almost instantly – as opposed to a paper form which needs to be transported and then transcribed.

It’s also much less expensive, since each text message cost only the equivalent of US $0.01 or so, compared to a much greater cost for each paper form to be purchased, printed, distributed to the field, and then brought back from the field.

Ebola SMS reporting

Ebola SMS reporting

These advantages made it possible, cost effective, and easier to have many more people submitting shorter reports much more often. CDC piloted this approach in one country and then, based on its success, expanded it to several more – allowing an inexpensive mobile surveillance system to cover a much greater area more thoroughly than was possible using paper-based reporting.

This was particularly important for a rapidly-spreading and lethal disease like Ebola, but is also useful for many other disease surveillance activities.

Learn more about how big data is benefitting public health, research, and clinical care in the health industry by downloading Big Data and Health below.




Report: Big Data and Health

We have more data than ever before. Nowhere is this more evident than in the health industry, where big data and the smarter technologies tapping into it are enabling rapid change and helping with outbreak controls, data tracking, and medical research.

Download Big Data and Health