Facebook launches three new disease mapping tools

The new tools will include a high-resolution population density map with demographic estimates, a movement map and network coverage map.
By Laura Lovett
02:41 pm
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Photo credit: Facebook 

Public health departments are now getting a little bit of help from Facebook to map out where diseases are spreading worldwide. The social media giant recently launched three new maps aimed at helping public health officials tackle the problem of pinpointing where diseases are present and spreading. The new additions include high-resolution population density maps with demographic estimates, movement maps and network coverage maps. 

The project was inspired after Facebook started working with nonprofits to map out natural disaster sites a few years ago. 

“We started to think about ways to use our data and being useful in different verticals,” Laura McGorman, policy lead of Data for Good at Facebook, told MobiHealthNews. “We heard from our partners directly — many of them actually work across verticals — that some of the maps already built have profound and novel applications in the public health space. So, it really was a demand-driven initiative.”

Big names in the public health field including the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, UNICEF, the World Bank and London’s School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine have teamed up with Facebook on the maps. 

Aggregated Facebook data will be used in both the movement maps and network coverage maps. Meanwhile the population density maps are made up of census data and satellite images. 

“We believe it is not just Facebook data that can be brought to the models but essentially our AI capability, our data science and compute power,” McGorman said. 

WHY IT MATTERS

Public health organizations are frequently relying upon outdated data in order to track diseases, McGorman said. These maps were developed as a way to tackle that issue. 

“When planning public health campaigns or responding to disease outbreaks, health organizations need information on where intended beneficiaries live, as well as real-time insights from the field,” McGorman and Alex Pompe, from Data for Good, wrote in a blog post announcing the new maps. “However, in much of the world, information from the most recent census is often out of date and timely insights from remote communities are scarce.”

WHAT'S THE TREND

Facebook is no stranger to the public health space. In fact, it is involved in a number of initiatives from blood donation to addiction resources. For example, the company launched a new campaign last June to help address the opioid crisis, so that any user searching for opioids would instead by redirected towards addiction resources. 

It also launched the blood donation feature in the US earlier this year, which lets Facebook users sign up as a blood donor and then gives them a notification when blood banks near them are in need. The program kicked off in India in 2017. Last year the social media giant introduced the program to Pakistan, Brazil, India and Bangladesh. Since launch, 35 million people have signed up as blood donors in the countries. 

ON THE RECORD 

“This effort is also another welcome step forward in unlocking the full potential for public- and private-sector data to be combined to predict and forecast epidemics,” Vanessa Candeias of the World Economic Forum, said in the Facebook blog post. “In line with Sustainable Development Goal three on improving health for all, we look forward to our partners using these maps to improve health outcomes for communities around the world.