Software Predicts Tomorrow’s News by Analyzing Today’s and Yesterday’s
Prototype software can give early warnings of disease or violence outbreaks by spotting clues in news reports.
Researchers have created software that predicts when and where disease outbreaks might occur based on two decades of New York Times articles and other online data. The research comes from Microsoft and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
The system could someday help aid organizations and others be more proactive in tackling disease outbreaks or other problems, says Eric Horvitz, distinguished scientist and codirector at Microsoft Research. “I truly view this as a foreshadowing of what’s to come,” he says. “Eventually this kind of work will start to have an influence on how things go for people.” Horvitz did the research in collaboration with Kira Radinsky, a PhD researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute.
The system provides striking results when tested on historical data. For example, reports of droughts in Angola in 2006 triggered a warning about possible cholera outbreaks in the country, because previous events had taught the system that cholera outbreaks were more likely in years following droughts. A second warning about cholera in Angola was triggered by news reports of large storms in Africa in early 2007; less than a week later, reports appeared that cholera had become established. In similar tests involving forecasts of disease, violence, and a significant numbers of deaths, the system’s warnings were correct between 70 to 90 percent of the time.
Horvitz says the performance is good enough to suggest that a more refined version could be used in real settings, to assist experts at, for example, government aid agencies involved in planning humanitarian response and readiness. “We’ve done some reaching out and plan to do some follow-up work with such people,” says Horvitz.