The Centers for Disease Control, now one of the most influential public health organizations in the world, has a surprising origin story. It was founded in Atlanta, Ga., in 1946 to combat malaria, a highly infectious mosquito-born disease that was having a huge impact on Southern states.
Once a major public health issue, malaria was officially eliminated from the United States in 1951, and modern medicine can cure the disease with relative ease. But malaria is far from eradicated in the developing world, and understanding how and why it spreads is a key issue in eliminating the disease worldwide.
That’s why Seattle-based partners PATH, the global health nonprofit, and Tableau, a leading company in data analytics and visualization, have teamed up for the Visualize No Malaria campaign, which is leveraging data analytics and visualization to assist Zambia with its goal to eliminate malaria in the country by 2020.
The two partners, along with the Zambian Ministry of Health, are driving a unique collaboration of private tech companies that use data as a way to understand and combat the disease, informing public health efforts.
“They’re experts around all the interventions you do in Zambia to help control malaria, and we don’t know anything about malaria,” explained Neal Myrick, Tableau’s director of social impact. “What we bring to the table is our expertise around data and data analytics.”
Jeff Bernson, PATH’s director of results management, measurement, and learning, said data from on-the-ground surveillance of a disease is an essential tool for public health efforts — but before Tableau came aboard, PATH was struggling to use that data effectively.
“Like so many public health programs that depend on this type of surveillance, we were sitting on a lot of information and we knew we could do more with it,” Bernson said. “We knew we could gain better and more insights out of that data.”
While some areas of Zambia do make electronic records of malaria cases, and digital reporting is spreading, many areas still record malaria incidents with a pen and paper. Regardless of how they are collected, these records are then aggregated in one program, but the data is complex and difficult to draw findings from.
“If you can imagine looking at 200,000 malaria case records in an Excel spreadsheet, it’s more difficult to figure out where the incidences are higher, where the disease is spreading, and things like that,” Myrick said.
That’s where Tableau steps in. “What Tableau allows you to do is put that into a visual form and then combine it with other data, so you can actually start getting real insights to what the data has buried inside of it,” he said.
Bernson said Tableau’s ability to combine data has been instrumental to understanding how the disease is spreading, which relies on factors like weather, the water table, how many people move between different cities, and dozens of other complex data sets.
Tableau allows PATH to nimbly move through their data sets and to incorporate data from other systems, helping the project direct its efforts, Bernson said.
Tableau is assisting PATH with data visualization and analysis, and has pledged $100,000 per year to support the work until 2020. Five other private companies have also joined the project, many of them through work with Tableau, and together they are building an entire data lifecycle to support public health pursuits in Zambia.
MapBox, a customized digital map provider, is working on a crowdsourced project to map all the buildings in Zambia’s southern province. That data will be combined with other datasets to predict which areas are at risk for malaria outbreaks, and how the disease would spread.
Twilio, a cloud-based text messaging company, is providing communication between data collectors and local headquarters, allowing the project to refine and clarify data even in areas with little or no connectivity.
Other partners include advanced data analytics company Alteryx, data consulting and visualization company DataBlick, and Slalom, a business advisory, customer experience, technology, and analytics consultancy.
Bernson and Myrick say this kind of collaboration is beneficial for both sides, as PATH is able to support ongoing global health efforts and private sector partners are able to learn about and refine their products and use cases.
Myrick also said he hopes to see more funding for data in public health grants, which is relatively uncommon today. He hopes large funders will invest in the data lifecycle, including data collection, storage, and analysis. And Bernson said he sees excitement for a larger presence of data in the public health sector.
“What tools like Tableau do, and what the sector is doing when we look at data, is to get more people more access to this data and more of this self-serve environment” instead of relying on an outside expert, he said.
And the tools and systems being built today are an investment in future public health work, where data could change the way people approach fighting disease and other essential global development challenges.
For the moment, the project is making headway. Between 2012 and 2015, the malaria rates among children in Zambia’s Southern Province dropped 93 percent.