Google is helping UNICEF map and anticipate the spread of the Zika virus disease.
A volunteer team of data scientists, engineers and designers from the company has begun working with UNICEF officials to build an open-source platform for collecting and processing Zika-related data from different sources. The platform will combine disease-related information with data pertaining to weather and travel patterns to visualize potential outbreaks and spread of the Zika virus.
"Ultimately, the goal of this open source platform is to identify the risk of Zika transmission for different regions and help UNICEF, governments and NGO's [non-governmental organizations] decide how and where to focus their time and resources," Jacquelline Fuller, director of Google.org, wrote in a blog post.
The set of tools that Google is helping UNICEF build is meant specifically for the Zika response but can be used for similar health emergencies in future, she said. Google will also provide a $1 million grant to UNICEF to help its efforts on the ground.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Zika virus was first spotted as far back as 1947. It is likely there have been many Zika outbreaks that were not recognized as such because the symptoms of the Zika disease are similar to those associated with other diseases. The Zika virus disease is rarely fatal, and the most common symptoms associated with it include fever, joint pain, red eyes and rash, the CDC noted.
The current crisis started in May 2015 when the Pan American Health Organization sounded the alert on the first confirmed case of a Zika infection in Brazil. The World Health Organization declared the virus a public health emergency with international ramifications in January 2016 after local transmission of the disease was reported in several countries. Google said there has been a 3,000 percent increase in Zika-related searches globally since November.
According to the CDC, there were 153 reported travel-associated Zika virus disease cases in the United States as of March 2.
Unlike other global pandemics, the spread of Zika has been harder to identify, map and contain, Google's Fuller said. That's because people infected with the virus rarely show major symptoms and because the mosquito species that transmit the disease not only are hard to eliminate but are widespread as well. So there needs to be better ways to visualize the threat so public health officials can mount an effective response, she said.
In addition to working with UNICEF, Google has updated the Zika-related information it is making available via Google Search. People can use Google Search to get detailed information on the virus, symptoms, treatment options, public health alerts and other data in 16 languages. The data will be updated as new information becomes available, Fuller said. The company is also working with YouTube creators with a big following in Latin America to spread awareness about the disease, she added.
This is not the first time that Google has applied its experience analyzing large data sets to help health officials track the spread of a disease. In 2008, the company launched Google Flu Trends, where it attempted to use search query data and flu tracking information from the CDC to estimate the prevalence of the flu in specific areas well ahead of the actual outbreak. After some initial success with it, Google in 2015 quietly abandoned Flu Trends and a similar effort to track the spread of the Dengue disease.