Coronavirus public health data

Data-driven techniques and technologies help smart cities identify when and where outbreaks begin, model how the outbreaks would spread, and advise how outbreaks could be contained.

Katie Pyzyk filed this report for

Analytics technology provides a variety of benefits, from allowing cities to assess their population’s risk of contagion, to tracking an outbreak’s spread and deciding where to allocate resources. Devising an appropriate response is important, but predicting and preventing an outbreak is even better, sources say.

Numerous private companies offer applicable AI-powered data aggregation, analysis and mapping software; they range from health-centric companies such as Metabiota and BluDot to general purpose analytics software and mapping companies such as SAS and Esri. Nonprofit entities including HealthMap and the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team also offer data-driven global outbreak trackers.

“Advanced analytics use artificial intelligence to help predict where we think there are increased likelihoods of… hot spots and emerging infectious diseases popping up around the world,” Bennett said.

The health and tech communities have turned more attention in recent years to creating and improving data analytics software for zoonotic diseases — those that originate in animal populations and are spread to humans — which account for 60% of infectious diseases, according to the CDC. While data analysis and geographic information system (GIS) mapping platforms are commonly used for tracking an existing outbreak, they can also be used for preventative measures by indicating where a zoonotic outbreak could occur and how it could spread.

“Prevention has to do with how we see diseases jump from animals to humans: Where do we see humans interact with animals as cities grow?” Bennett said.

Mapping has proven helpful in fighting Ebola, said Geraghty. Researchers found the virus originates in fruit bats; finding an original source accelerates the health community’s ability to create vaccines. Researchers also found that fruit bats prefer palm tree habitats to caves, so Ebola mitigation plans now involve mapping palm trees to predict where the disease has a high probability of spreading.