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Why Data Analytics Should Play the Leading Role

29/07/2016 13:09 | Updated 29 July 2016

A fairly recent show to premiere on E4 caught my eye. Called Containment, it follows the story of citizens in Atlanta who are exposed to a genetically modified virus and how governmental and police forces try to contain the disease to stop it spreading. Whether you're a fan or not of the show, it's not the first TV series or indeed film to try to use one of humans' biggest fears for dramatic effect. The show itself is based on a Belgian TV drama called Cordon, but do you remember Outbreak in 1995, featuring Dustin Hoffman? Or Contagion with Gwyneth Paltrow and Matt Damon in 2011?

Regardless of the bankability of the actors, when the films were made or what surprises are in store for the audience, most of these shows rely on heroic efforts made by characters to find a cure for the disease, to sacrifice themselves or to stop it spreading further to save the rest of the world.

What these films and shows don't highlight is the amount of data analysis that would need to go on in the background in real life. Let's take Containment to start with: how would they know how much of the city to cordon off? Instead of randomly drawing a box on a map, the government control squad would have brought in data scientists to determine the potential area of infection based on statistics, facts, previous situational analyses and more.

And, for the films where a cure is eventually found, imagine how hard the doctors, research scientists and other experts would have worked around the clock to test, analyse and re-test; using data analysis to track their progress. It's safe to say that, in real life, data analytics would play at least one of the leading roles.

The timing of Containment mainly caught my attention in line with the fast-approaching Olympics in Rio and all the media attention that has been focused on the Zika virus. A virus that was first identified in Uganda in the middle of the 20th century, it is transmitted by mosquitoes and has recently spread to the Americas where it can cause birth defects in babies born to pregnant women. Several athletes have pulled out of the Olympics as a result as they hope to start a family or have frozen their sperm in advance.

Our software platform has actually been used by Cloudera at a hackathon to try to spot patterns in the spread of the virus. The application itself cross references Zika case data with data points relevant to the way the disease spreads such as weather statistics, Zika carrying mosquito populations by year and flight data in and out of Zika countries. Connecting people, data and ideas, data visualisation is becoming a vital tool in improving disease management, supporting all aspects of a response from resource allocation to tracking the effectiveness of treatment methods. By visualising the spread of the virus we can use data-driven possibilities to help find potential answers. And, with Zika affecting genetics, the application of big data technologies will be even more vital as research scientists seek to analyse vast quantities of information relating to genomes, genetic sequencing and more.

It isn't the first time our data visualisation software has helped make better use of resources in the wake of a major outbreak. When the Ebola virus hit in 2014 we swiftly built an app to visualise data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Office of the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to provide a consolidated view and help allocate resources to the most appropriate areas. Our software's data visualisation capabilities are also still being used by charity Medair to understand where financial, physical and other aid are most needed, so charities can help prepare for the next big crisis.

While it might be the unsung hero of the piece, data analytics clearly plays one of the most important roles in disaster and virus outbreak films and TV shows. Naturally, I wouldn't want to detract from good old-fashioned entertainment and the dramatic arc. However, we can't forget that it's really the software analysing data in the background, and then visualising the results to share with the decision-makers faced with impossible questions, that cannot be ignored or denied.

So step aside Mr Hoffman; time for data analytics to take the lead role!

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