May 11, 2009
Predicting and Tracking the Swine Flu Virus
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Susan Smith - Managing Editor

by Susan Smith - Managing Editor
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Industry News

Predicting and Tracking the Swine Flu Virus

By Susan Smith

Geospatial technology has become an integral part of predicting and tracking of infectious diseases such as the Swine Flu H1N1 virus pandemic which dominates our news today.

According to Seth Wiafe and Bill Davenhall, ESRI Health and Human Services Solutions, disease surveillance using GIS provides public health officials with the information needed to detect and manage disease outbreaks. They say that “successful disease surveillance activities require standardized methodology, appropriate tools for prompt data collection, accurate synthesis of the data, continuity over time, and—most important—timely dissemination of the resulting information to health officials and, as appropriate, the public.”

In each one of these cases, early detection can make all the difference in being able to take effective action to contain a major outbreak of a disease. The ways that GIS can help in outbreak response are through disseminating information about threats of emerging infectious diseases and enhancing decision support at all levels including local, regional and national. Additionally, GIS can be useful in planning disease surveillance activities and predicting outcomes before financial commitments of public health intervention are made, and in allocating resources.

Mapping and spatial analysis of the spread and patterns of disease also reveal other information such as trends and interrelationships and can be used with georeferenced epidemiological data that take into account demographic, environment, hydrologic and vegetation information. The fact that maps can be dynamically updated as new information is received render them an invaluable resource, both for those working in surveillance mode and the public.

Predicting the Spread of the Virus

Proving that great minds think alike,
a computer model at Northwestern University is predicting the Swine Flu epidemic’s future. Its forecast suggests approximately 2,000 cases by the end of this month, predominately in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and Houston. Simultaneously, informatics professor Alessandro Vespignani at Indiana University has come up with strikingly similar data with GLEaM, a Global Epidemic and Mobility modeler that integrates sociodemographic and population mobility data in spatially structured stochastic disease models to simulate the spread of epidemics at the worldwide scale.

Both these models enlist the aid of supercomputers to predict the spread of the viruses. Indiana University’s algorithms are different from those of the computer model at Northwestern. Dirk Brockmann, engineering professor lead on the epidemic modeling team at the Northwestern Institute on Complex Systems, said that the number of cases is growing faster than either of the two models had predicted.

Brockmann’s simulation employs two large datasets: air traffic and commuter traffic patterns for the entire country, and the data from the Web site, Where’s George?
Where’s George? was dreamed up by programmer, Hank Eskin, over ten years ago. Eskin marked each dollar bill he received with a note asking the next owner to enter its serial number and zip code into his Web site, in order to track how far and fast the bills would travel. By 2006, the site had tracked the histories of 100 million bills. Brockmann uses this Web site because it relies on face-to-face transactions, which are what spreads influenza.

It takes two days to develop a simulation using either of the two models, according to Brockmann and Vespignani.


There are a number of maps available to track the Swine Flu.

HealthMap allows you to select various sources of information independently, to select various diseases, categories such as “new and ongoing outbreaks” and “international significance” and specific warnings.

Dr. Henry Niman, a biomedical researcher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who runs Recombinomics, compiled the map and the data behind it for the map shown in this article using technology provided by
Google. The map used Rhiza’s web based mapping product, Insight, to get both official and unofficial data such as news reports and user contributions into the tracking system quickly.

In response to a request from scientists at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Google has released a new version of its Flu Trends map designed for
Mexico. Unlike
Flu Trends for the U.S, Flu Trends for Mexico at this time does not include historical surveillance data to validate that its search data corresponds to actual infections.

Pacific Disaster Center uses ESRI software to track the Swine Flu, as well as hazards, recent earthquakes, active volcanoes and includes basemap layers such as hydrography, imagery, elevation, demography and infrastructure. is maintaining an archive of H1N1 ArcGIS shapefiles and Excel spreadsheets so that users can track swine flu occurrences over time. Included in the data are confirmed cases, suspected cases, fatalities and documentation. The site also includes
free software and a tutorial to view the shapefile maps.

ESRI has historically provided aid to agencies tracking disease and has added information for any organization needing assistance to its existing disaster management Web pages at

According to the company, a county health department in Texas is using this program to receive technical support as they launch a real-time system to track 911 calls from people complaining of flu symptoms. Health alert networks use this resource to exchange data between health care providers including hospitals and clinics and public health departments. In Mexico, ESRI's distributor, SGSA, the command and control center in Mexico City using technical staff members and ESRI software to communicate with local health authorities.

During the SARS epidemic in 2002, ESRI China (Hong Kong) developed and hosted the SARS Mapping Web site. The system, built on ArcIMS, launched with both English and Chinese interfaces, provided up-to-date information on the progression of the disease based on daily updated information gathered from the China Center for Disease Control and Prevention (China CDC), Department of Health (DoH), Government of Hong Kong SAR, and WHO. The data were collected, geocoded, and presented as online maps that could be interrogated, analyzed, navigated, and printed.

Top News of the Week

ArcGIS 9.3.1, now shipping, helps you create and share modern Web maps that are relevant to your entire organization. This release of
ESRI's integrated collection of geographic information system (GIS) software products focuses on improving the performance of dynamic map publishing and increasing the visibility of geographic information.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has formally accepted a new ESRI-based system that improves how the organization produces its national suite of nautical charts. The system, Nautical Chart System II (NCS II), will utilize ESRI's Production Line Tool Set (PLTS) for ArcGIS—Nautical Solution to produce more than 1,000 paper nautical charts and provide complete coverage in NOAA's equivalent Electronic Navigational Chart (ENC) format based on the International Hydrographic Organization S-57 standard.

Acquisitions, Agreements, Alliances

NAVTEQ announced that it has signed an agreement to supply NAVTEQ map data and content to
Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., the world's second largest mobile manufacturer.

Topcon has partnered with
Applied Field Data Systems (AFDS) in Houston to sell and support Topcon GIS solutions in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

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-- Susan Smith, Managing Editor.


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