Can Google, with its big data, map and zap the spread of Zika?

A vaccine would be a priceless weapon in the fight against Zika, a virus currently tearing through the Western Hemisphere and linked to devastating birth defects and paralyzing neurological conditions. But a vaccine wouldn’t be everything, of course. If the frustrating wars against measles and polio have proven anything, it’s that eradicating an infectious disease requires relentless public health outreach, surveillance, and containment, as well as medical advances. Indeed, the one and only eradication of an infectious disease of humans—smallpox—was accomplished not just with a vaccine, but tight networks for disease monitoring and strategic vaccination campaigns around disease hotspots—in other words, spatial data and responses.

While Zika is very different from smallpox and scientists are likely to be years away from having a vaccine, the importance of spatial data in stamping out a scourge are the same. And, when it comes to mapping Zika, Google thinks it’s uniquely suited for the task.

Thursday, the tech giant announced that it has assembled a team of volunteer engineers, designers, and data scientists that will use weather, travel, and disease data to map and forecast the spread of the virus. Google hopes that the resulting open source modeling will help governments and public health organizations monitor and anticipate outbreaks in real time so that they can direct resources and responses accordingly.

“As a company whose mission is helping people find information, with a lot of experience in analyzing large sets of data, we’re in a good position to help—at scale and at speed,” Google wrote in a Thursday blog post. To get the job done, Google has partnered with UNICEF, a United Nations program that provides humanitarian and emergency relief for children.

Google also donated $1 million to UNICEF to support its on-the-ground public health efforts. And the company has made an effort to make Zika information easily accessible online.

Of course, Google is not alone in working to develop spatial data and modeling of Zika. In February, the National Science Foundation announced emergency funding(PDF) that would support researchers working on predictive models of Zika transmission.

The NSF felt such efforts were necessary to complement the work by other government agencies, such as vaccine research, Samuel Scheiner, director of the Ecology Evolution of Infectious Disease program, told Ars. So far, the funding agency has received around 65 proposals and hopes to award grants in the next month or so.

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