Google joins Zika virus fight: $1m and open source mapping tools to predict outbreaks

Google is putting engineers, designers, and data scientists behind an open-source platform that taps into weather and travel patterns to plot potential Zika outbreaks.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

Google is working on a data platform to visualize potential outbreaks of the Zika virus, as well as donating $1m to support UNICEF's response to the epidemic.

Google's effort is aimed at improving the response of UNICEF and others in containing the mosquito-borne virus. As Google noted in a blogpost today, unlike other pandemics, Zika is difficult to identify and map because only one in five people infected with it actually displays symptoms.

To demonstrate interest in Zika across the globe, Google has produced a map, shown above, of searches made by day and city since June last year.

Google says it is deploying a team of engineers, designers and data scientists to help UNICEF build an open-source platform that uses a range of data, including weather and travel patterns to visualize potential outbreaks.

"Ultimately, the goal of this open-source platform is to identify the risk of Zika transmission for different regions and help UNICEF, governments, and NGOs decide how and where to focus their time and resources," Google.org director Jacquelline Fuller said.

"This set of tools is being prototyped for the Zika response, but will also be applicable to future emergencies," she added.

UNICEF will use Google's $1m grant to help prevent the spread of Zika by reducing mosquito populations, raising awareness, and supporting the development of diagnostics and vaccines. Currently there is no vaccine for Zika.

Google already provides US users of search with information about more than 900 health conditions. But now it's updated search with more information about Zika in 16 additional languages, offering a summary of the virus, symptoms, and current public health alerts.

To raise awareness about Zika, the company is also working with YouTube creators in Latin America, such as Sesame Street and Brazilian physician Drauzio Varella.

According to the World Health Organization, the first Zika outbreak was reported in 2007. However, health officials have been alarmed by the spread of the virus this year across the Americas and a coinciding rise in the number of babies born with microcephaly in Brazil.

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