Recently I stumbled on several discussions of using data analysis as a public health measure. The first concerned a Victorian cholera epidemic, the next covered modern-day cholera epidemics in India, and the third discussed a new early warning system for public health that's currently in development. The thread linking these together? Graphical representations of data that provide epiphanies about public health.
Whaddya Mean, the Water's Not Safe to Drink?
Last year, Steven Johnson wrote a book called, The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How it Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World. If you click here, you can watch a YouTube video of the author talking about his book. Put simply, London in the mid 1800s was the largest city in the world. Since none of this growth had been planned, per se, the city was chaotic and crowded and mind-bogglingly unsanitary. In 1854 a popular public pump on Broad St. became contaminated with the cholera bacterium, and the resulting cholera outbreak killed 10% of the Soho neighborhood in eight days. Doctor John Snow believed that tainted water, rather than tainted air (the then-prevailing opinion of how disease spread) was the cause of the illness. The titular Ghost map—a map of the neighborhood with little black bars representing the number of deaths in each affected house—made it clear that the deaths centered around a central location, the contaminated pump. That single image helped convince people that cholera was a water-borne illness and that clean water and proper sewers were vitally important for the health of cities.
At Sensors Expo last month, Gregory Withee, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), talked of the Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS), a global endeavor to acquire data on the earth and its health. For instance, researchers at the Biotechnology Institute at the University of Maryland discovered that cholera outbreaks in Calcutta, India, were more prevalent when the sea surface temperature is elevated and the sea is high. For more detail on this topic, read "Global climate and health: predicting infectious disease outbreaks" from The Encyclopedia of Earth. In the clincher graph, notice how the number of cholera cases follows the elevation in sea surface temperature and height. This correlation provides an early warning system, allowing public health officials in India to ramp up preventive efforts before a cholera outbreak kicks in.
Finally, the EPA's Homeland Security Research with the University of Pittsburgh's Real-Time Outbreak and Disease Surveillance Laboratory, is creating a surveillance system that uses real-time monitoring of the public water supply to give early warning of public health trends.
We're collecting more data than ever before. One of the most important things we can figure out is how to use and analyze these data effectively, whether it's to keep a factory up and running, achieve the healthiest crops possible, or track diseases.