If the head of Googles philanthropic division gets his wish, an Internet search engine will sniff out early signs of disease outbreaks and other emerging health crises.
This month, Larry Brilliant, a maverick tech guru and former WHO physician, received $100,000 and a bully pulpit to help make his wish come true.
He was one of three awardees of a "wish" at the Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference, which attracts hundreds of high-worth activists. Brilliant had been named head of Google.org just a day earlier, on February 22.
Brilliant want to expand an existing web crawler run by the Canadian government. The Global Public Health Intelligence Network monitors about 20,000 Web sites in seven languages, searching for terms that could warn of an outbreak.
This information is assessed by a team of experts and passed along to the World Health Organization. It is the heart of the WHOs so-called rumor surveillance efforts, which have picked up hundreds of global disease outbreaks.
The Canadian system is credited with detecting SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), as well as collecting the initial reports of duck deaths in China that were subsequently confirmed as bird flu.
Brilliant said that without the Canadian network, the SARS outbreak could have reached pandemic levels.
Under his plan, the web crawling technology would search 20 million Web sites in at least 70 languages and would look for signs of impending famine as well as disease.
In the existing system, the Chinese web crawler found SARS six weeks before the English Web crawler did, said Brilliant.
In addition, Brilliant wants to incorporate satellite technology and perhaps send out text messages to health care workers within a given geographic area of a crisis.
But Brilliant also wants to expand access to the network so that it would be available for free to all people in their native language. He wants the network to be independent, "instead of hidden in the bowels of government."
"I want to make it part of our culture that there is a community of people watching out for the worst nightmares in humanity," he said.
Brilliant told the Wall Street Journal that his project would need about $10 million to launch. Funds from venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers may support the project, and Sun Microsystems and Google have expressed interest in participating.
Googles philanthropic efforts focus on global poverty, health, energy and the environment. So far, grants and investments have topped $7 million.
Brilliant himself is no stranger to disease eradication. In the 1970s, he was part of the WHO team that successfully rooted smallpox. In the 1980s, he co-founded The Well, a very early online community. Last year, he was part of UN efforts to end polio.
Brilliant wants to call the new organization INSTEDD (International Networked System for Total Early Disease Protection). The name both contains the initials of the granting institutions and serves as a reminder that people can do something instead of waiting for "nightmares."
The key to eradicating diseases, said Brilliant, is early detection and response. "You cant cure what you dont know is there."