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Friday, February 8, 2013

Can Big Data From Epic Indian Pilgrimage Help Save Lives

Big data, meet humanity.

The South Asia Institute at Harvard has sent a team of public health specialists to one of the largest gatherings in the world, the Kumbh Mela in India, with a goal of assembling the largest public health data set ever among a transient population.

The Kumbh Mela, a religious festival that is expected to draw nearly 100 million pilgrims, is in full swing near Allahabad, at the confluence of rivers that Hindus consider to be holy.

The pilgrims are there to bathe. The epidemiologists are there to study their health.

They are analyzing data from the four hospitals that cater to the congregants to try to gauge who is ailing from what and when. By mapping “complaints, diagnoses, medications and geographical origins of patients,” the researchers said, they hope to discover disease outbreaks andpatterns.

The real-time surveillance, the researchers say, could be useful if disease breaks out this time and to plan for future Kumbh Melas. It could hold lessons for other countries looking to tap the power of data for public health.

“This will be the largest data set of its kind in a temporary mass gathering, its size allowing us to develop new metrics for detecting epidemics when total population size fluctuates widely from day to day,” said Dr. Satchit Balsari, a fellow at the FXB Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard and a doctor at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

So far, the team has produced a data chart showing that many people are coughing and that cases of dysentery and diarrhea are more pronounced on one river bank than on the others.

In less than two weeks, the team has collected information on 16,000 patients who have come to the clinics, and the most critical day! s are yet to come. Sunday is the most auspicious day for pilgrims to take a dip in the waters where the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati meet. The festival runs to March 10.

The public health project is part of a larger pilgrimage by Harvard scholars to study the Kumbh Mela. You can follow their progress on Twitter, using the hashtag #HarvardKumbh.