What can the Internet do about infectious disease


I was rivetted by the Peter Piot’s book, No Time to Lose as he tracked the Ebola virus in the heart of Africa. The book heaped praise on the brevity of medical practitioners and virologists, who battled naysayers and doubters as they confronted the scourge. Piot, crossed into the quarantined zone, and purposefully learned local customs to determine how the Ebola virus disease was spreading. This was now what we did BC or Before Computers? And now?

I remind of the recent heart-breaking South African events: the outbreak of Listeriosis and the challenges in finding its sources, as well as the tragic death of the Life Esidimeni health victims in plain sight. The Ombudsman and the Esidimeni arbitration hearings redeemed our faith in the monitoring and legal professions albeit sadly after the fact! However, given the pervasive Internet along with social media tools that we have, surely, we should be better placed to find sources? Or are we as helpless as the MH320 parents seeking closure over the inability of modern society to find a massive Boeing aircraft?

It seems that I was not the only person thinking about this. Enter Dr Wasim Ahmed a fresh young PhD graduate working as an Assistant Professor at Northumbria University (UK). He not only pondered over the opportunistic movement of infectious diseases but he was also able to develop an innovative framework for tracking pubic views and opinions of such illnesses across and between borders by listening and closely observing Social Media platforms such as Twitter.

Professor Moyo, the Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research Innovation Engagement at Durban University of Technology was equally curious, asking: “Given the converged digital world through the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the Internet of Things, why is it that we cannot track Ebola and other diseases with greater ease?  For both the local and global contexts, this is relevant as it would help reduce the turnaround time to  medical practitioners as well as governments to quickly respond and reduce the infectious spread.” She added that “This provides scope for both research, innovation and teaching. The teaching should focus with relevant entities on how to use these frameworks and for monitoring and evaluation units could add value. This is archived through research and innovation which is what universities must do, through collaboration and knowledge exchange.”

Dr Ahmed in several workshops explained how he leveraged this curiosity and Data Analytics to track the Ebola and Zika virus. This  provided deep insights to the medical fraternity with techniques and methodologies to track disease. Medical science has been using data and experience to detect diseases. Modern medical science use data support diagnosis by using automated image processing techniques drastically improving the detection of cancerous tumours.  Other ICT advances have provided links between events and illnesses through deep machine learning. This is even evolved a branch called infodemiology which is proving to be fascinating.

Data Analytics or Data Science is the study of information using a multidisciplinary approach comprising Artificial Intelligence, Statistics, Mathematics, programming and huge data crunching. The term big data has an allure that transfixed the world. This is a good career but do note that one would require a deep skill in at least one of the multidisciplinary subjects.

Back to Dr Ahmed, who proudly reflects that his high school system predicted that he will only ever be a D-grade student. Yet here is Dr Ahmed, complete with a PhD that will make a significant contribution to tracking infectious illness. Don’t let negative teachers make you feel inadequate!

Back in South Africa my student and I were busy undertaking a longitudinal study of the #FeesMustFall campaign. We uncovered the presence of software robots (bots) leverage during the campaign. This was curious because we thought that the first evidence of bots in South Africa was during the Bell Pottinger-led campaign to protect the Guptas. The use of bots is not uncommon in social media campaigns with different constituencies having varying perceived positive or negative reasons to leverage bots to lobby their cause.

So discovering the good doctor from the UK was a delight and a privilege. We contacted each other and so began the collaboration and his first visit to Africa.

Dr Ahmed in a series of productive workshops, educated South African business and academics on how to monitor Social Media and the mathematical constructs that one may use to either make inferences, the role of news amplifiers, strong influencers and how and why connect seemingly disparate online conversations sometimes converge.

Be warned this research is not about replacing the medical fraternity but rather augmenting the medics skills with knowledge from alternative sources. It’s a “different type of insight,” reflected Dr Ahmed. Indeed.


Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology. His areas of research include e-democracy, Social media, and unstructured big data.