Facebook Takes on Epidemics With New Disease Prevention Maps

Danielle Abril

Facebook wants to help fight infectious diseases like measles by introducing maps that health organizations can use to prevent and respond to outbreaks.

The disease prevention maps, which debuted Monday, provide detailed information such as population density, the movement of people in real time, and network connectivity across regions. The point is to give researchers and health groups information to get ahead of epidemics and more effectively reach vulnerable communities.

Facebook released similar maps two years ago to help nongovernmental organizations respond to natural disasters. It took the same idea and applied to public health.

“We realized some of the movement maps we created for natural disasters could also be used for the spread of malaria or the flu,” said Laura McGorman, policy lead of Facebook’s Data for Good team, which has spent the last two years building data-driven products for social good. “We wanted to create tools that could offer substantial life-saving insights.”

Facebook’s health maps come amid the rise of the anti-vaccination movement, which has contributed to rising diagnoses of preventable diseases like measles. The U.S. is currently experiencing the largest measles outbreak since 2000, when the disease had been considered eliminated in the U.S., according to the Center for Disease Control.

As of May 10, the CDC had confirmed more than 800 measles cases in 23 U.S. states this year. Most of those cases involved unvaccinated children. A similar uptick is happening worldwide.

Facebook is sharing its new maps with 13 initial partners, including the Harvard School of Public Health, UNICEF, and the World Economic Forum. Partners will receive access to the three types of maps along with corresponding data.

The maps use data culled from sources like the U.S. Census Bureau and from some of Facebook’s 2.3 billion users. Access to maps using Facebook user information is limited to the project’s health partners. The density and demographic maps, solely powered by publicly available information, are open to the public.

Adam Kucharski, assistant professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the new data will help him with his research into how epidemics spread. He’s specifically interested in Facebook’s movement maps, which show the pattern of people moving in real time based on aggregate data from Facebook users who have enabled location services on their phones.

“That’s an extra insight we haven’t had before,” Kucharski said. “It saves us from making broad assumptions.”

Facebook is similarly using insights from its social network to show which areas have mobile connectivity. This lets health organizations decide how to best notify residents directly about public health issues.

To provide the population density and demographic information, Facebook teamed with Columbia University to combine satellite imagery and census data with artificial intelligence. The result is high-resolution maps that show estimates for the number of people living within areas as small as 30 meters by 30 meters. The maps also provide demographic information about each area like the number of children under the age of five or the number of women of reproductive age.

This isn’t the first time Facebook has delved into public health issues. Two years ago it created a blood donation feature that helped people who wanted to donate blood find blood banks in need. Then in April, it created a special label that health support groups could put on their Facebook pages. People who join those Facebook groups can more easily post anonymous messages, making those groups more of a safe zone for discussing personal health issues.

In the future, McGorman said the company may share insights it gains from public conversations on its social network about health with health organizations. The company did not provide additional details about that.

There’s some irony in Facebook providing health information. The company is widely criticized for helping spread misinformation, especially about vaccinations. But health map partners said it’s difficult to blame any one company while saying that reliable health data is valuable—regardless of who’s providing it.

“Lost opportunities and avoidable harms because of data that just can’t be accessed—that’s the other side of coin,” said William Hoffman, project lead of Trustworthy Data Innovation at World Economic Forum. “What’s the cost of inaction?”

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