The latest initiative by the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will help the travel and tourism industry worldwide.
“DHS requires a real-time, open source, bio-surveillance data feed to support mission objectives of providing earlier warning and enhanced situational awareness for biological threats of national concern,” the government solicitation issued on Tuesday reads.
The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) wants this real-time feed on outbreaks of infectious diseases worldwide. Small businesses are encouraged to bid for a government contract.
The DHS Office of Health Affairs has announced its intention to stay updated on the outbreaks of infectious diseases affecting both humans and animals by having news about them from all parts of the world coming to a single feed 24 hours per day, 365 days per year.
US government health officials want the real-time data feed to draw information from at least 25,000 open online sources and to be updated at least every hour. Diseases alerts are welcome in the form of emails or RSS feed.
The US government expects the information thus provided to give details on the time and place of the disease outbreak. The data should be gathered from news releases published in at least five different languages (English, Spanish, French, Russian and Chinese), and be translated into English.
Meanwhile, news of diseases seems to be quick enough to spread globally these days. A single case of bubonic plague in Kyrgyzstan was enough to make headlines across world media outlets and also to make some of the country’s neighbors consider measures to prevent the disease from spreading.
The outbreak of the latest strain of bird flu, labeled H7N9, was widely covered this spring, with experts looking into the possibility of a pandemic.My first recommendation to DHS is to make their website a lot more navigable. I couldn't find the "government solicitation" anywhere on the site, even after a site search.
My second recommendation is not to rely on a single-source data feed; it would be much wiser to seek multiple sources, and in far more languages than just five. Off the top of my head, adding Arabic, Hebrew, Vietnamese, Urdu, Hindi, Thai, Portuguese, and at least one Scandinavian language would seem like the bare minimum.
Third, reliance on "news releases" is like walking around with a "Kick Me" sign on your back. All governments lie (including the US), and even threats of missile attacks do little except make them fall temporarily silent. The more sophisticated governments just don't talk about unpleasant subjects, and their local media usually fall into line. In such countries, thousands could die of the galloping crud before the rest of the world even had a hint that anything was amiss.
When you think about it, Flublogia has become something like the 24/7 early-warning system the DHS is pining for. But we're far from being as comprehensive as the DHS wants, and I for one would subscribe to such a data feed instantly if it were available.
The DHS wants epidemic intelligence, and intelligence is the ability to see the relationship between two seemingly unrelated facts or events. (Corollary: Stupidity is the failure to see the relationship, regardless of one's education or income.)
It is also the ability to recognize facts and events in the first place. We are fast approaching the anniversary of a spectacular example of the Americans' failure to do so—a failure that led to the creation of the DHS, several wars, and countless well-paid careers.
My final recommendation to the DHS: If you really want such a data feed, call up the National Security Agency and invite them out to lunch. If the NSA is already tracking everyone's email, it probably knew about the latest Cambodian H5N1 case before the Cambodian government did.