Bio.Diaspora brings together disparate information about global outbreaks, climatic conditions and travel patterns, and synthesizes them to facilitate risk assessments of infectious disease threats around the world.
MaRS Market Intelligence spoke with Kamran Khan, Founder of Bio.Diaspora.
How did you come up with the idea for Bio.Diaspora?
I am an infectious disease physician, and have my own clinical practice based at St. Mike’s hospital in Toronto. Back in 2003 when we had the SARS outbreak, I really got a to chance to see how a disease can impact a city―not only in terms of health, but also the psychological and economic damages that come with it. SARS alone took $2 billion out of our local economy here in Toronto. It really got me thinking about the interconnectedness of the global community, and I realized that I was going be to practising medicine in a world where I would require a full understanding of infectious disease activity across the globe. The question, however, was how could one individual possibly know what is happening in cities all around the world and how they are connected to each of those cities?
This is when I began to focus my research on the global airline network, which transports over 2.5 billion travellers every year. Following airline activity was a way to grasp how the world is interconnected and how cities and countries share the risks of infectious diseases.
Where did the name Bio.Diaspora come from?
I realize it’s quite a mouthful, but Bio.Diaspora is talking about the scattering of living systems. Its literal meaning is the scattering of life. It represents how living systems interact in a world where there is so much movement happening.
Where are you able to source data about not only global outbreaks, but also travel patterns?
We get information from official government reporting as well as from online chatter, which can provide early clues about infectious disease outbreaks. We’re pulling information from our colleagues at the Harvard Medical School who run HealthMap, from NASA satellite imagery and from a variety of other sources pertaining to human, animal and insect populations. With respect to the airline industry, we work with different agencies to analyze over 2.5 billion travel itineraries every year.
How do you present this information within Bio.Diaspora?
In terms of techniques, we use a combination of maps, charts, tables and word clouds to visualize different types of information. For example, we are using a word cloud to visualize the birthplace of residents across the United States. We have about 200 countries from where people originate and portraying this information in a chart or a bar graph is not particularly efficient.
One thing that is not often considered is how humans will interact with information. When designing Bio.Diaspora, visualizing the data was very important to me, and, more importantly, visualizing it as accurately as possible was critical. We want to minimize the potential for misinterpretation.
Who are the customers Bio.Diaspora is targeting?
Our customers are currently governments and public health agencies, which have a responsibility to protect their citizens against international infectious disease threats.
Going forward, we will include national departments of defense that are concerned about biological threats, as well as companies that are negatively impacted by infectious disease outbreaks such as insurance agencies. Another target is pharmaceutical companies that manufacture drugs or vaccines for certain diseases.
Do you see this information ever becoming available to the public?
I don’t see this happening anytime soon, because the data is potentially sensitive in its raw format. However, it is possible that sections could be made available to travellers, because getting sick while travelling can be particularly unpleasant and people would value this information. There may be creative ways to utilize some of our information and distill it right down to an individual traveller’s needs.
Looking into the future, what is your vision for the ideal state in which diseases are tracked?
My hope is that we get away from reacting and move more into anticipating. Today, we’re largely firefighters in that we basically wait for fires (that is, outbreaks) to emerge and land on our doorstep, and then we react to them. What we really need is an early warning system.
An early warning system could provide any jurisdiction with the ability to look out to the rest of the world, to have situational awareness of what’s occurring in terms of outbreaks, and to understand how people are moving into that particular geographic region at any given time. As a global community, we need to start thinking more proactively and prioritizing prevention, rather than working as a collection of individual countries solely focused on our immediate self-interests. This is a reality of living in a highly interconnected world.
In hindsight, do you think SARS could have been anticipated and prevented in Toronto?
I think there was definitely enough information to indicate SARS was going to land in Toronto, as there was something unusual happening in Guangdong province in China, which is right next door to Hong Kong. Many of the tools that we have today didn’t exist back then, but they would have certainly given us good insights. Looking back, we can see just how predictable the movement of SARS was. It’s amazing how much the spread of the disease tracked the corridors of people’s movements worldwide.
What are some of your favourite visualizations?
One image that really speaks to me is the image of flight lines in the world. When looking at it, you can see the fabric of how the world is connected today. You can not only see the physical geography of places, but also a depiction of social contexts and relationships. It’s not necessarily an image that would be used for decision-making, but it’s a beautiful rendering of something that’s complex and global.