We can't officially call the program Google Disease(tm). But that's essentially what HealthMap is. Developed by doctors at Harvard Medical School, it's a mashup of a world map, news and information feeds on diseases all around the world, and $450,000 of Google.org funding. Some slick software piles updates on emerging diseases into region-by-region alerts to help public health researchers find and snuff an outbreak before it turns into the 1918 influenza. The service is also free, so anyone who wants to know whether the big bad Bird Flu is knocking on their door can go and have a gander too.
HealthMap could be extra helpful in places where access to public health information is hard to come by. For instance China, whose official line for a while back in 2002 and 2003 was "SARS? I don't know what you're talking about. There' no one dying of a mysterious disease here."
And according to the Wired article, plans could be in the works to bring Healthmap down to the street level:
Back in 2006, Google.org head Larry Brilliant told Wired.com about his vision for a service that looks a lot like HealthMap.
"I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street," Brilliant said.
HealthMap doesn't have quite that level of resolution just yet — outbreaks are only mapped to the state/province level...
Knowing about outbreaks as they happen is a good thing, and potentially really empowering, but HealthMappers and Larry Brilliant seem to be wandering into a privacy minefield.
A house-by-house account of who's got what disease would sure help out public health researchers, but what would it do to a community? Should I be able to find out who on my block has Hepatitis, Dengue Fever, or HIV? And to what extent is someone suffering from that disease allowed to not tell anyone about it? That's a tough question, but one that'll need answering before HealthMap goes hyper-local.