Weekly Readers and Disease Detectives

The girl reads a book, we read the news like grown-ups.  Local media surveillance trained readers in 6 PREDICT countries to screen print media for health events and report them to digital disease detection systems like HealthMap.  The HALI project started local media surveillance in 2010.

The girl reads a book, we read the news like grown-ups.  Local media surveillance trained readers in 6 PREDICT countries to screen print media for health events and report them to digital disease detection systems like HealthMap.  The HALI project started local media surveillance in 2010.

- David Wolking

I bet you're reading this on an iPhone aren't you?  An iPad or some other tablet then?  OK fine, it's your PC.  When's the last time you read a print edition when you weren't at a doctor's office, or in Vegas, and we all know you were only reading those street papers to check out some lovely ladies or strapping young lads in leather and bow ties.  Print is dead! Rest in piece.  But it is far from dead everywhere.

In 2010 we starting reading newspapers in Tanzania.  But not just any newspaper.  Zika, Muhiddin and I went to a street kiosk in Iringa and started an inventory of every paper on sale.  Then we went to another kiosk, then another.  Some papers were in English, some in Kiswahili, and some were just like those street rags in Vegas, only way stranger.  We picked some favorites, papers that covered topics on health, papers that were more than just English Premiere League zines, and cruised back to the office. We Googled those papers and recorded which ones had online editions.  Then we went through each issue of the best papers, those with actual news, and assessed how many articles were actually published online (if there was even a website) vs. in the print edition.  Results: very few, under 20%.  

A newspaper kiosk in some PREDICT country waiting for one of our Local Media Surveillance Weekly Readers. 

A newspaper kiosk in some PREDICT country waiting for one of our Local Media Surveillance Weekly Readers. 

Were we bored?  Maybe.  But we were also on a mission.  A new project was born and we called it Local Media Surveillance (LMS).  At the HALI office not everyone is working all the time.  We have drivers, but sometimes we don't drive anywhere.  We have interns who sometimes aren't all that busy interning.  We have a field team that may not be in the field.  But we always have newspapers and we always have chai.  So, we turned our workplace culture of reading newspapers and drinking chai into an activity.  We subscribed to a few papers (those without online editions),  and started skimming them looking for news on health, things like people or animals getting sick, risks for disease emergence like areas in Tanzania where people eat monkeys or mice, or where bats are flying into people's homes.  When we found an article, we scanned it.  Then we summarized it in English and sent it off to our friends at HealthMap who posted it to their digital disease surveillance network.

What's the point?

Digital disease surveillance systems like HealthMap have automated systems that screen the web and news media in supported languages for key words on diseases and disease outbreaks. Then they post the news to maps.  In real time they showcase health alerts from around the world and do a great job providing early warning of outbreaks to decision makers and the public.  But we work in Tanzania, and they speak Kiswahili.  HealthMap doesn't speak Kiswahili (yet), and we noticed that the map of Tanzania didn't have too many alerts, so we wondered if they were missing our news.  Then we wondered if they were missing news reports that weren't digitized as well; news reported in papers with no online counterpart.  So, through USAID's PREDICT project, we worked with HealthMap and developed a new activity - and Local Media Surveillance was born.  I call it "Weekly Readers", and right now in Tanzania my Weekly Readers are busy as always reading newspapers with purpose, they're probably about to discover a Crimean Congo Hemorrhagic Fever outbreak in Uganda.

Today the Local Media Surveillance project is all grown up.  Thanks to a talented UC Davis PhD student named Jessica Schwind and our friend and superstar HALI project Principal Investigator Dr. Woutrina Miller, we rolled out LMS from Tanzania to 5 other countries and conducted a formal evaluation on the project's impact and potential.  What did we learn?  Well, Jessica will let us all know soon.  She's presenting the results of the LMS project and evaluation at the Digital Disease Detection Conference this September.  But I'll let you in on a secret, LMS works.  Weekly Readers make great Disease Detectives, and until print is actually dead, we'll keep on reading and reporting.  You can follow our progress by watching LMS pins pop up in Tanzania, Bolivia, Cameroon, Banladesh, Uganda, and Vietnam on HealthMap.

Want to help out?  Our Weekly Readers need funds for subscriptions, please check out our donation page. 

Want to be a LMS Disease Detective?  Let me know and I'll let  you in on some tricks of the trade.  

Know about an Outbreak?  Tell HealthMap.

Feeling sick?  Check out FluNearYou and tell somebody about it.