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October 13, 2015

Responding To: WHO Director-General Continues Georgetown's Conversation on Global Governance

Data Collection: A Grassroots Approach

Alex Rohlwing

Dr. Chan’s lecture addressed the importance of integrating systems for data collection. The Director-General stated that “Having good data on normal disease patterns is important, especially at the community level. That helps you to distinguish and recognize an unusual disease event, like Ebola.”

Collecting data during an event like the Ebola outbreak is important, as it helps to improve responses to future outbreaks. But learning from past experience is only one key: we must also implement ongoing data collection and monitoring systems. Recognition will be the first step to containing and responding to a new outbreak. The sooner a disease outbreak is recognized, the more targeted the response can be, which will save resources and lives.

Communication with healthcare centers and reporting from medical professionals is generally the standard for tracking disease outbreaks and general health patterns. While there is certainly a need for professional reports, hospitals and health survey teams cannot cover every community. In areas with limited access to healthcare, the majority of the people may not present to a hospital or clinic for treatment and will consequently never be factored into disease surveys. Self-reporting through web-enabled devices (smartphones especially) is an increasingly viable option and one that WHO and other health organizations should pursue to improve outbreak monitoring and tracking. 

Social media, data mining, and the rapid rise in internet availability in almost every nation opens a new realm of possibilities for data collection and analysis. Individuals on the ground now have the ability to send information about their own symptomology—or other health-related factors in their community—to any collection system in the world. WHO, as a leader in global health governance, must set the example and actively pursue the creation and implementation of systems for individual and community symptom reporting.

Data mining and analysis programs, such as Health Map are helping to pick out health and outbreak patterns through analysis of search trends, social media posts, and a variety of other web-based sources. These systems are one facet, but individual reporting must be another, especially during an outbreak.

Data collection and reporting on other health factors (including water, nutrition, sanitation, etc) will also help us to map areas of greatest risk and need, allowing better prevention and easier resource allocation.

The future of health monitoring lies outside of the walls of hospitals and clinics, and in the hands of every smartphone or computer user on the planet.

Alex Rohlwing is a student in Georgetown's M.A. program in conflict resolution

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