In the modern world, data can win the fight against disease–but only when devoted and capable researchers are there to seek it out.
In a time before data and analytics, disease, both viral and bacterial, remained a terrifying mystery summed up by the miasma theory, which posited bad air as the culprit for illness. This belief was–obviously–little help to those trying to track down the source of an outbreak.
In 1854, London, England, was in the middle of an epidemiological disaster. The district of Soho was caught in the crosshairs of the city’s third major cholera outbreak. Building on the recent development of germ theory, the physician Dr. John Snow decided to put data to work to find a solution
Dr. Snow used a method now known as disease mapping, in which he highlighted the residences of those who had died due to the disease alongside that of the district’s many water pumps (as the researcher had a hunch that cholera was indeed a water-borne disease). The comparative evidence could be easily analyzed–and pointed to a popular pump on Broad Street. This was disabled for use by authorities and the cholera outbreak was nipped in the bud.
Over the years, disease mapping has been applied to other contexts–and has been able to save countless lives around the world.
Now, almost two centuries following the work of Dr. Snow, another London-based researcher continues this story of innovation–using as she uses data to fight malaria, the vector-borne disease that nearly every minute kills a child under 5 years-old. Her name is Gabrielle Wong, the creator of GeoMosquito and MosquitoSat.
Wong sits at the crossroads between computer science and anthropology, using the former to track data and create analysis surrounding the latter. GeoMosquito, an award-winning software coded by Wong, monitors mosquito density and malaria rates in Sub-Saharan Africa.
“It uses satellite climate and agricultural data, most notably rice field data, and builds on a study that was done by Stanford.”
A companion to this software is MosquitoSat–the machine Wong invented to help log mosquitoes by using acoustic sensors tuned to the acute sounds of their wings.
With such accomplishments under her belt, people are often surprised to learn that Wong is still in high school. Yes, the innovator is only 17 years old.
GeoMosquito–as an intuitive force with great potential in the fight against malaria–won first place in the Maxar Climate Mapping Challenge in the 2022 NFT World Series of Innovation.
The connection between a vector-borne disease such as malaria and the climate category–which focuses on the problem of climate change–may not be obvious. But, Wong’s research finds a direct correlation between a warming planet and a rise in the threat of malaria.
“Temperature increase gets us closer and closer to the ideal temperature for mosquitoes to reproduce,” she says. “Recent articles have shown that people in Europe have more than double the risk of contracting a mosquito-borne disease such as malaria, while this would be endemic in another country such as Nigeria.”
The data Wong works with is critical to getting out in front of what could be an incoming disaster–should rising temperatures continue to raise the reproduction rates of disease-carrying mosquitoes. The challenge is that this data isn’t always easy to gather–especially in remote and urban regions of the world.
“When I was looking at Kebbi State,” Wong says, describing research she conducted out of northwestern Nigeria, “it was very difficult, as there were very few data sources available. I thought the model would generate inaccurate results and have a low detection rate. But I plugged it into the model and it all worked.”
To verify this, Wong continued to test the model with other states, showing the accuracy of GeoMosquito.
To combat this greater issue–a lack of data–and to make GeoMosquito an even more potent weapon in the fight against vector-borne disease and malaria, Wong is developing a scalable, efficient, and accurate approach to utilizing MosquitoSat.
“We’re building it to be a sustainable and very small machine,” she says, “equipped with a drone–making it easier for people living in those rural communities to track down where high populations of mosquitoes put them at risk for contracting the disease.”
Throughout the history of epidemiology, data has been humanity’s greatest weapon for defense. From Dr. Snow, to Gabrielle Wong, research around the analytics of particular diseases is crucial to saving lives.
Wong, who aims to make meaningful worldwide change, is also the founder of Discimus Foundation, an organization that brings children around the globe access to computers and coding lessons that will both empower and inspire them to innovate just as Wong has
Only just now approaching the end of high school, Gabrielle Wong already sits in good company when it comes to her anthropological and computational work. It’s easy to posit that Wong–one of academia’s greatest prospects–will continue to develop into a force for good.