IBM joins effort to prevent pandemics

Big Blue works with health organizations to save lives by learning how to curb the spread of infectious diseases.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
2 min read
IBM is working with leading health organizations to save lives by learning how to curb the spread of infectious diseases.

They will do this by utilizing two projects initiated by IBM. The interoperable health care information infrastructure (IHII--pronounced eye-high) is a system capable of data mining--collecting and analyzing information for determining outbreaks and health trends based on data shared by partner medical facilities on things like symptoms, outbreaks and trends being learned about a given disease.

The Spatiotemporal Epidemiological Modeller (STEM) then incorporates IHHI information and circumstantial data on the travel and contact of humans, along with myriad other factors, to determine the best way to contain outbreaks.

"With data mining, further modeling can be done," Dr. Diego Buriot, head of the World Health Organization office in Lyon, France, told CNET News.com. "With this information, we could use strategy and react quite rapidly. Being able to provide antivirals, we can control the epidemic at the source."

The programs being launched were borne during a brainstorming session IBM held in the fall of 2005, asking leaders of the health community what a large technology company with its resources could do to help.

"A group of us at IBM took notice of the reports of influenza, obviously the avian flu. We felt we had a lot to offer, and individuals at the company felt some societal responsibility. So we thought we would see what we could do," Joseph Jasinski, program director for health care and life sciences research at IBM, told News.com.

The World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Scripps Research Institute and the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biodiversity are members of the steering committee now guiding IBM in its initiative.

Many of these leaders cited an article in Nature by Donald Burke, who recommended a way to curb disease by strategically distributing a vaccine and offering clinicians a way to spread data rapidly. In order to do this, statistical information on human health patterns, bird migration, human travel, weather and myriad other factors would need to be available and analyzed.

Scripps and IBM are building a joint facility in Florida where Scripps can utilize the biological and geographical spread-tracking systems.

Scripps already does some computational modeling, but it's "not at the scale they (IBM) were able to do and to do it with their order of magnitude using their supercomputers," Lerner acknowledged.

Earlier this week, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) announced a grid-computing project aimed at finding a cure for the virus H5N1, commonly known as avian influenza.