If you haven't seen it yet, you should really check out HealthMap, a website created to aggregate health-related news and produce heat maps of potential disease outbreaks. HealthMap's creators - researchers associated with Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School - just released an open access article describing the motivation behind HealthMap and the promise it holds:
The goal of HealthMap is to deliver real-time intelligence on a broad range of emerging infectious diseases for a diverse audience, from public health officials to international travelers...Ultimately, the use of news media and other nontraditional sources of surveillance data can facilitate early outbreak detection, increase public awareness of disesase outbreaks prior to their formal recognition, and provide an integrated and contextualized view of global health information.
One of the supporters of the project, head of Google.org Larry Brilliant, has high hopes for HealthMap. According to an article in Wired, he had this to say in 2006:
I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street.
HealthMap isn't quite there yet - you can see this after playing around with the online tool and drilling down to some of the developing countries. The creators of HealthMap are well aware of this, and they discuss the issue in their recent article, stating that "there are critical gaps in media reporting in tropical and lower-latitude areas, including major parts of Africa and South America—the very regions that have the greatest burden and risk of emerging infectious diseases." The authors conclude that more work needs to be done to capture "locally feasible channels of communication." They also mention mobile phone alerts as a way to get information out to people.
I have a minor suggestion for them - treat mobile phones as two-way devices. In countries where information infrastructure is lacking, no amount of tinkering with news aggregation is going to give a very accurate picture of what's happening on the ground. Mobile phones hold the promise to overcome that problem. Mobile phones have managed to spread rapidly throughout the developing world as a device capable of providing basic banking services. A recent article in American Banker give examples of just how rapidly this technology is spreading: 76 percent of Turks own cell phones, compared to 26 percent with internet access; M-Pesa, a mobile-banking company in Kenya, has 1.6 million subscribers; 30 million South Africans own a cell phone. Many companies continue with plans to expand rapidly.
In theory, at least, owners of cell phones could send text messages to report outbreaks of disease. HealthMap's creators would have to figure out a way to aggregate this type of information. However, if banks can offer financial services over cell phones to the previously unbanked, it seems to me that it would be possible to deal with this kind of data problem. I am sure there must be other obstacles to this kind of effort - thoughts?