The Beginnings of Epidemiology
In 1854, Dr. John Snow was instrumental in ending a London Cholera outbreak that claimed over 500 lives in just over a week’s time. What did he do? Using a map of the city, Dr. Snow was able to chart the location and details of every Cholera case and victim in London at the time. This strategy allowed him to pinpoint the origin of the disease to a single public well in the center of the city. Dr. Snow’s research not only helped to end the Cholera outbreak, but it launched a new branch of medicine called epidemiology, the study of how diseases originate and spread. 1
Drowning in Data
Today, there is no need to plot points on a map as Dr. Snow had to do. In fact, the biggest dilemma facing scientists now is how to process the sheer volume of available information. To give you an idea of just how vast Big Data has become, more information has been collected in the past two years than in all of human history up to that point. 2
Thanks to computers, datasets from virtually every facet of life are so plentiful, they are often difficult to manage let alone process.
Consider the recent outbreak of Ebola. To date some 28,000 people from 11 countries have been infected and more than 11,000 of those infected have died. One of the major issues was the inability to see the bigger picture in real time.
Revisiting the Ebola Epidemic
To illustrate the power of visual analytics, Simone Sharma, a molecular geneticist and field application scientist at PerkinElmer, recently employed the company’s TIBCO Spotfire® visualization and analytical tools to demonstrate the important role the software can play in the study of infectious diseases such as Ebola. Integrating publically available information on the epidemic, Sharma created a series of dashboards that illustrate the power of visual analytics in epidemiology – all created in a user-friendly format.
TIBCO Spotfire® tools work by building visualizations based on layers of data. In the Ebola example, Sharma obtained various datasets from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX), ranging from types of medical facilities to burial site information. The result is a rich source of visual information that allows researchers and policymakers the ability to view data from a variety of criteria. “Whether you decide to view the data from a global perspective or a local one, the results draw on as many sources as you can import into the program,” Sharma says.
At an operational level, dynamic filters within the TIBCO Spotfire® suite can help researchers understand a few parameters about the disease itself, including number of cases reported, number of deaths, and percent of cases, all available from the country level to the county level; and, researchers may also track progress of effective measures such as construction of community centers, and laboratory networks collecting samples and reporting cases.
From a genomics point of view, there were numerous mutations reported within the Ebola genome. Analyzing the available genome sequences with TIBCO Spotfire® tools, researchers can map the location and type of a particular mutation. More importantly, the visualization can help understand where the samples containing a particular mutation were collected from.
The rapidly changing world of geopolitics requires us to have an immediate response to any health issues, lest a local infection becomes an international pandemic. To achieve that, we also need a robust data analysis system that allows us to visualize and understand what is happening on the ground in real time.
“Our ability to gather data for infectious disease outbreaks like Ebola has become increasingly sophisticated,” Sharma says. “However, if we are to address complicated questions related to disease surveillance, prevention, and control, then rapid integration, analysis, and visualization of these complex datasets are essential. This is where tools like TIBCO Spotfire® software can play a pivotal role in helping health organizations such as WHO to monitor infectious epidemics.”
To view TIBCO Spotfire’s visualizations and analytical tools in action, visit Sharma’s free webinar here.
- Anon., “The Legacy Of John Snow: Epidemiology Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow, John Snow Bicentenary, “ London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Spring 2013.
- SINTEF, "Big Data, For Better Or Worse: 90% Of World's Data Generated Over Last Two Years." ScienceDaily. May 22, 2013.