Welcome to the Lab of Digital Epidemiology!
Epidemiology, literally the “study of what is upon people”, is concerned with
the dynamics of health and disease in human populations.
Epidemiology, literally the “study of what is upon people”, is concerned with the dynamics of health and disease in human populations. Research in epidemiology aims to identify the distribution, incidence, and etiology of human diseases to improve the understanding of the causes of diseases and to prevent their spread. Traditionally, epidemiology has been based on data collected by public health agencies through health personnel in hospitals, doctors’ offices, and out in the field. In recent years, however, novel data sources have emerged where data are frequently collected directly from individuals through the digital traces they leave as a consequence of modern communication and an increased use of electronic devices.
The communication revolution – the explosion of mobile phone and Internet usage – unfolding in the past few decades has led to two major outcomes:
- that all types of modern communication are now digital, and
- that the number of users of devices enabling digital communication is in the billions, rapidly approaching full coverage in large parts of the world.
As a consequence, an increasingly large fraction of what we do and say—including epidemiologically relevant behaviors such as deciding on preventive measures and treatment choices, as well as reporting disease symptoms—is stored electronically, often in accessible form and thus amenable to analysis. Extracting meaningful information from this data deluge is challenging, but holds unparalleled potential for epidemiology. The observation of the spatiotemporal movements of millions of people during disease outbreaks, the rapid detection of an unusual respiratory illness in a remote village anywhere on the globe, the near real-time estimation of influenza activity levels, and the assessment of vaccination sentiments during pandemic preparedness efforts are examples of realizations of this potential.