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Big Data: An Ebola Outbreak Cure?

Amid the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa -- which has triggered Ebola fears in North America -- some pundits now position Big Data applications as a way to get ahead of the disease. If that's true, how come Big Data offerings didn't spot Ebola trends far earlier in the current outbreak cycle -- or did they?

The simple answer: Software tools are only as good as the humans -- and data scientists -- who program them.

Rewind only a month or so to September 2014. At the time, a lengthy list of articles explored how Big Data and business analytics applications missed the early signs of an Ebola outbreak. Examples include:

Fast forward to the present. As of Oct. 25, 2014, the World Health Organization estimates that the current Ebola outbreak has triggered more than 10,000 suspected cases and nearly 5,000 deaths. Only 17 Ebola cases (and four deaths) have been documented outside of Africa, but 24x7 news coverage has stirred Ebola fears, particularly in the United States.

Late to the Game, But Taking Action

As the number of Ebola cases continues to climb, Big Data companies are finally taking action -- and talking about their strategies to fight the outbreak.

Among the latest examples: Re/Code and other news organizations spent the past few days pointing to Harvard's HealthMap -- a big data service that reportedly flagging the Ebola outbreak some nine days before the World Health Organization formally announced the epidemic, issuing its first alert on March 19. The HealthMap data was under-reported earlier this year but now -- finally -- seems to be moving into the spotlight.

Writing about HealthMap and the overall Ebola outbreak, David Richards, co-Founder and CEO, WANdisco stated: "[HealthMap] compiles, collates and creates a visual report of global disease outbreaks, sifting through millions of social media posts including those from health care workers in Guinea blogging about their work."

Meanwhile, IBM is jumping into the conversation and backing the so-called Ebola Data Repository, a cloud-based service designed to provide free data about the outbreak. Steve Adler, an IBM Chief Information Scientist, is deeply involved in the effort.

Money Matters

Money to fund the fight has also emerged. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have donated $25 million to fight Ebola. (Of course, Facebook is perhaps the biggest Big Data company in the world.) And Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has also pledged $100 million to the fight.

Bill Gates weighed in on the Ebola outbreak through an Oct. 6 blog, describing how the fight required a short-term response to stop the crisis and a long-term effort to build health systems that prevent the next outbreak. Gates has previously described how analytics and Big Data can improve the world's health care and education systems. I suspect at some point soon, we'll hear Gates mention Big Data and Ebola in the same sentence.

And hopefully, the mention reveals continued progress in the fight against Ebola.

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