Networks and Public Health: Seeds of Resilience

Stephen DeAngelis

March 30, 2006

Worth reading: a thoughtful omnibus post by Bruno Giussani, reporting on several developments and viewpoints at the intersection of IT systems and public health.  He covers Larry Brilliant’s “wish” speech at TED, citing Canada’s Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN), and calling for its expansion into a proposed worldwide system dubbed INSTEDD — the International System for Total Early Disease Detection.  There’s also commentary about a call by Pittsburgh University public health expert Ronald E. LaPorte for an “Internet Civil Defense Against Bioterrorism,” on the model of a neighborhood watch.

None of these is exactly what we would call a resilient system.  GPHIN comes closest — it’s…

…a web-based system, now in its second version, that continually scans thousands of online information sources (media, local newspapers – often the first source – wires, public statements, health bulletins, blogs) in seven languages (English, French, Spanish, Arabic, simplified and traditional Chinese, and Russian) looking for news of infectious diseases outbreaks, other pathogens, natural disasters, and more.

GPHIN was established by Health Canada’s Lab Centre for Disease Control, in cooperation with several other entities. Basically, it is a sophisticated Internet search engine, based on technology developed by a Canadian firm, designed to crawl the network, filter the information for relevancy and patterns, detect early signs of a potential problem and flag them. The flagged data is then sent to public health experts to be analyzed, including officials at the World Health Organization, at food inspection agencies, and others, who are responsible for verifying the threats and confirming or deny the outbreak…

In other words, GPHIN is somewhat automated and somewhat rules-based, but still relies on human intervention for all necessary response.  A truly resilient system would go further, connecting more network nodes — such as hospitals, public health agencies and pharmaceutical companies — and anticipating and automating responses based on a range of contingencies.  Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see so much effort — and so much leading-edge thought — focused on networked IT systems and their potential to meet critical public needs.  This is the seed of resilience.  Progress depends on — and is driven by — collaboration.  The greater the number of contributors, and the greater their insight and ambition, the faster we will make progress toward a truly resilient response.