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Thursday, October 16, 2014

High-Tech Methods to Track Ebola

Washington, DC was abuzz with Ebola discussions today. There was a Congressional hearing on the topic, with members of Congress generally asking some pretty good questions of CDC officials, a Texas hospital administrator and the top person at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. And President Obama was on the news talking about the possibility of a travel ban from Africa (not likely in his view). In the meantime, others are figuring out the way forward, including using cell phone activity and satellite images to track new Ebola cases in West Africa, in order to know where to mobilize resources. 
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is tracking the approximate locations of cell phone users in West Africa who dial emergency call centers in an effort to predict the onset and spread of Ebola outbreaks.
“The data is just the number of calls by cell tower, but from that you can get a rough idea of the area that the calls are coming in from, and then derive census, neighborhood data from that,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund told Nextgov on Thursday. 
Satellites can help by offering a very high-level view of the threat. A sudden Ebola outbreak could be indicated, for instance, by an unusually crowded hospital parking lot as viewed from space, Nextgov's sister publication Defense One reported last month.
Just as satellite imagery showed Russian forces massing along the Ukrainian border, high-resolution images from low Earth orbit can offer a glimpse of where and when more sick people are seeking treatment.
My geography colleague here at SDSU, Dr. Ming Tsou is deeply into the use of social media for these  kinds of public purposes., in work that is funded by the National Science Foundation.
Under a partnership between San Diego State University and the county, officials will enlist 1,000 Twitter users in San Diego County as volunteers with the goal of making emergency warnings go viral.
Influential Twitter users who have a lot of followers will be asked to re-tweet important announcements when the county Office of Emergency Services is trying to broadcast alerts or news updates. Researchers will track how successful the volunteers are in getting the word out to large numbers of people.
Tsou, who directs SDSU’s Center for Human Dynamics in the Mobile Age, is doing research into the ways people use social media to communicate about breaking news such as natural disasters, disease outbreaks, road closures and evacuation notices. His research is focused on finding out how people disseminate information in different situations and figuring out why some information goes viral while some does not.
Going viral, of course, is not necessarily a good thing... 


  1. I think their BEST strategy is to "Isolate And Contain" the virus to the continent of Africa. In other words, do everything possible to prevent infected people from leaving Africa. I know they already have some steps in place ... but not a highly-reliable screen. The "Containment Within Africa" strategy needs to be made highly effective. AS FAST AS POSSIBLE!! Otherwise, once infected people get into the air transportation systems of the world - the virus can go anywhere.

    I thought the idea of monitoring cell phone calls is quite ingenious. But as you and I both know, there are many people in rural Africa who lack cell phones, or have limited coverage. I am skeptical that they will stop the virus in W. Africa - the chances of a spilllover to Central Africa and E. Africa seem high to me. I'd love to believe they could stop it in W. Africa, Knowing the place well, and the ability of this virus to transmit, I doubt they can stop it so easlity. BTW, the next country with very high risks for widespread transmission is a place near and dear to your own heart - Ghana!!

    The ONLY way to truly monitor the actual progress on the ground in Africa ... is having people on the ground. Tracking this disease is very high risk, but it will have to be done on the ground. It can be done. It is just that the US respone has been so random and disorganized. The greatest risk to the world right now ... is ignorance. We cannot fight an "enemy" ... if we dont know where it is.

    Pete Pollock Ph.D., Redondo Beach, CA

  2. just some second thoughts as I absorb the news in your article. I find it amusing at some level ... the USA always seems to want to look at the world through a pair of binoculars. We seem to want to sit in our own "safe refuge" and say ... "Just give me the information I need!". In practice, things are not so easy. African hospitals can be crowded anyway. Patients sit around for days, and get no attention. it doesnt matter whether they have ebola or just the common cold ... nobody helps them very much that is so typical.

    What the USA always needs ... and never has ... is accurate human intelligence. We need real on-theground reporting. It is conceivable that this can be set up in Africa - they are just going about it the wrong way. The issue still boils down to the essentials ... people in Africa are not our "data points". They are human beings. So if we can respect their dignity - we can get the information we want.

    Pete Pollock, Redondo Beach, CA