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Big data for social good, not for profit

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Digital Marketing Lead, Public Services Sector, IBM Analytics

Now that the Ebola virus is sitting in our backyard, the entire country is on high alert—and rightfully so, as it's no longer a disease that's plaguing people continents away, in little known countries. WHO indicates that there are 9216 Ebola cases with 4555 deaths. My first thought when I look at these statistics is: where is big data in the Ebola equation?

I am inclined to think we thought we were untouchable when it comes to this scary virus, or if we ignored it for long enough it would go away. After all, we got a head start to analyze the data, train medical staff, put protocols in place and get ahead of the problem. Instead we have left ourselves open and susceptible. Surely all the cases reported equated to enough data to have an inkling of an answer for a cure, to minimize the spread and address the questions that lawmakers are debating.

"Should the US restrict travel from West African countries plagued by Ebola?"

"Should we have quarantines and mandatory isolations?"

CDC Chief Thomas Frieden indicated that "roughly 100 to 150 persons from Ebola infected countries enter the U.S. daily without quarantine." This is alarming as Dallas's patient zero has already infected two others and has left many more vulnerable. The question then is, if we don't quarantine everyone is there some criteria we can establish to flag individuals who are likely to have the disease? Should our patient zero be Duncan, or trace back to the root of the problem to the two year old boy in Guinea? Can we use the 9216 data points to spot correlations and predict who will have Ebola? Is it possible to connect patient data with data from phones, credit cards, computers, travel data and other related data to accurately diagnose Ebola before symptoms appear? Airports are now conducting Ebola screenings, yet "what exactly is the right threshold temperature for Ebola?" Ebola cases in Dallas clearly indicate we are still guessing at that as both Duncan and Vinson had discrepancies during their diagnosis. 

All these are pertinent questions yet the most pressing question right now is “do we need more hospitals and more rooms equipped for Ebola as ‘America's 4 Ebola Hospitals Can Only Hold 9 Patients.’?” I would hope that the powers that be are trying to get in front of the Ebola virus and preparing to handle an outbreak. My fear is that we're not. After looking at the missteps made in Dallas, I'd be reluctant to place the care of an Ebola patient in the hands of local teams—they are just not prepared. Despite the many Ebola deaths and datasets we are still not ready to cure it, accurately hone in on symptoms and treat it, much less stem the outbreak.

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Big data promises a lot—"endless possibilities," pundits say. It also opens many questions around privacy and security of data, especially in healthcare. Researchers, however, say that "57% of consumers are willing to share additional personal information in return for better service." For me, I don't want just the possibilities of big data, but ACTUAL change. I don't want another app for my phone, another car sensor or any new fancy gadgets or smart meters; what I'd really like to see is big data making a tangible impact on real world challenges like the Ebola epidemic—big data for social good, not for profit.

To get involved, check out the Big Data for Social Good Challenge, a global hackathon where developers create innovative solutions using Hadoop that solve civil and other real world social challenges.