top of page

It Knew

60 Minutes recently covered the topic of "disease outbreak" and immediately caught the interest of the data geeks, analysts and medics in our family. Their story profiled a Canadian company called BlueDot whose algorithm picked up the COVID-19 story on...hold your breath....December 31, 2019!

Companies like this, specialize in technologies you read about frequently - big data and data science. They crunch worldwide data, in 65 languages, once every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day. Yup, that is a whole lot of data. But then storage is dirt cheap so volume hardly matters.

What BlueDot found on New Year's Eve - while the rest of the world was excitedly welcoming a year that will now live in infamy - is that 27 cases of a mysterious disease had appeared in Wuhan and that seven people had already been hospitalized. Yup, they picked up the story on the day it broke, even before the Chinese knew what they were confronting. Not only did they alert in a timely manner, they also knew that the cases were linked to Wuhan's wet markets.

Since then, BlueDot has gone on to predict where and when the virus will spread based on device tracking. When you you compare their results to the actual spread, it leads you to an aha moment.

The question that blows my mind is this: we have the technologies, data scientists, epidemiologists, researchers, digital news sources, and the computing horsepower, then how did we miss reacting more effectively?

The answer lies in what one scientist in the story called "panic-neglect". Millions are poured into solving a problem during and right after a crisis and then neglect sets in and the spending disappears. He made the point that a boatload is spent on tracking blizzards, hurricane and cyclones which gives people the ability to plan, react, and flee or shelter during extreme weather. Isn't there a compelling reason to spend money on sustaining infrastructure to track disease outbreak. After H1N1, the world did spend a fortune, but a decade later the offices have been disbanded and programs have been defunded.

Companies like BlueDot are rightfully getting publicity now and their technology is being used heavily in the current "panic" stage - in California for example to see where and when people are gathering. But "neglect" is also the root cause of where we find ourselves. And as the curve flattens, disappears, and potentially reappears in waves, we will be nodding our heads in despair.

The virus caught us napping in a cycle we have perfected and saw the planet as a rich petri dish in which to thrive. It knew just when to strike.

* This image combines a NYT headline with stats from the JHU coronavirus tracker.

bottom of page