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Mapping Technology Helps Pakistan Track and Prevent Epidemics

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, June 3 2013

The map that changed epidemiology and paved the way, eventually, for data visualization via smartphone

By mapping an 1854 cholera outbreak in London, Doctor John Snow changed epidemiology forever. He discovered the source of contamination was in the water from a pump on Broad Street, not from 'bad air' as previously believed. He also pioneered the field of data journalism and data visualizations, now a staple for public health organizations. In Pakistan, data collected on smartphones by city employees has been mapped and used to target sources of the potentially deadly dengue fever and is possibly keeping infection and mortality rates down. The same technology was repurposed to combat corruption in the Pakistan election this May.

In 2011 more than 16,000 people in Lahore, Pakistan, were infected by dengue fever, according to MIT Technology Review. Of those, 352 of them died. Last year only 234 contracted the disease and nobody died. Although the spread of dengue naturally varies from year to year, the reduction in cases could be a result of an early epidemic detection system that uses mapping technology to visualize the spread of the disease, with which analysts could use to predict the next outbreak. An Economist article reported that the app also tracked the status of “anti-dengue tasks” so city workers could be held accountable for their work. Before, the article explained, workers would shirk their work or refuse to apply insecticide unless nearby residents paid a bribe.

Umar Saif, a computer scientist at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, took a sabbatical to help the government implement the tracking system. The technology was derived from another one of Saif's projects called Flubreaks, which essentially one-ups Google Flu Trends. While Google Flu Trends can identify outbreaks in real time, Flubreaks takes the same information and converts it into an early detection system.

The government dedication to the program has surprised some. Qutbuddin Kakar oversees programs in Pakistan to combat diseases like dengue for the World Health Organization. He told IRIN Asia, “No one expected this kind of political commitment. . . In this part of the world, at least, we had not see this kind of response before.”

However, since dengue fever often emerges in 2 — 4 year cycles, Saif's mobile mapping technology — and more importantly the government response and implementation of anti-dengue practices — has not yet been tested to the fullest extent. Kakar cautioned, “We must see if the government is able to plan long-term for dengue. This was just a short term response.”

In a surprising twist to this story, the anti-dengue app was used to combat corruption in Pakistan's May 11 general election. According to the Guardian, more than 15,000 election observers were equipped with the mobile app loaded onto smartphones. With it they could send reports and photos of suspicious activity to a control room, where they were displayed as red circles on a map.

Something must have been done right. In spite of the violence leading up to the Pakistan elections, the Free and Fair Election Network declared the elections “relatively fair.”

From a cholera epidemic in nineteenth century London to election monitoring in modern Pakistan, the evolution of data visualization and maptivism is a strange and wonderful thing.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.

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