Researchers Predict Future Epidemics Using Old Newspapers

Researchers Predict Future Epidemics Using Old Newspapers

Scientists have created software that analyzes past events in order to predict future health threats and events.

Ryan Gerhardt
  • 5 february 2013

There’s an old axiom asserting that history repeats itself, and those who fail to learn from it are bound to make the same mistakes. With computers and data processing programs, it’s becoming easier to see the patterns in the cycles of history – now it’s time to learn from them.

Which is exactly what Eric Horvitz and Kira Radinsky are attempting to do.

Horvitz, a researcher from Microsoft, and Radinsky, a researcher at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, have developed software that helps analyze past events and health related headlines so as to forecast future real-world events. The systems works by:

identifying significant increases in the likelihood of disease outbreaks, deaths, and riots in advance of the occurrence of these events in the world.

The published paper ‘Mining the Web to Predict Future Events’ relays their findings, and offers a platform on which to build a more practical program. The software developed by Horvitz and Radinsky analyzes, qualifies, and even contextualizes online archival data that mentions natural events (like droughts), deaths, and health related epidemics. The analytical and ‘learning’ ability of the software

builds predictive models that generalize from specific sets of sequences of events to provide likelihoods of future outcomes, based on patterns of evidence observed in near-term newsfeeds.

The software is able to leverage articles, headlines, and data from over 90 sources spanning from the 1980s to the early 2000s, including The New York Times, Wikipedia, FreeBase, and WordNet.




Predictive software of this nature could potentially allow for more proactive alerting systems, which could lead to a greater preparedness and even reduction in disease outbreaks, deaths, and related riots worldwide. One of the examples highlighted in the paper is a drought in Angola in 2006 that precipitated an outbreak of cholera in 2007, which the software successfully predicted would happen based on the analyzed patterns. Amazingly, the precision of the forecasts for natural events/disease outbreaks, deaths, and riots was in the range of ‘70% to 90%’ accurate.



While researchers do much of the current analysis on health trends manually, a clear advantage of the software is highlighted in the conclusion of the research paper:

Beyond knowledge that is easily discovered in studies or available from experts, new relationships and context-sensitive probabilities of outcomes can be discovered with such automated analyses. Systems employing the methods would have fast and comprehensive access to news stories, including stories that might seem insignificant but that can provide valuable evidence about the evolution of larger, more important stories.

Businesses have been practicing forecasting for years. Futures markets, stocks, and futurists are rooted in the idea of predicting coming trends based on historical data, so it’s no wonder that the same approach can be applied to natural and human related events, which tend to be similarly cyclical. One startup, Recorded Future, has already received funding from Google and the CIA and works to

constantly collect news, blogs, and public social media…[to] identify the events: past, present, and future…[and] help you find predictive signals in the noise of the web.

Twenty-two years of data to analyze is a relatively small sample set, which is why Horvitz aims to gather and analyze more data that digs further into the past. The foundation of the software laid out in the ‘Mining’ research paper could prove especially useful in underdeveloped countries that are held under the constant sway of recurring natural events.

Mining the Web to Predict Future Events

Recorded Future

Images via ‘Mining the Web’ and Flickr


PSFK's Workplace Vision: How The Nurturing Of Seeds Will Come To Define The Onboarding Process

Brand Development
Media & Publishing Yesterday

CNN Launched An Entire Drone Division Of Their News Network

CNN AIR incorporates aerial footage into the corporation's ongoing news coverage

Advertising Yesterday

Uber’s Breathalyzer Cards Let You Know If You Are Sober Enough To Drive

A new campaign from the ride-sharing service raises awareness about the importance of a safe trip home


Get PSFK's Latest Report: Future of Retail: Technology Primer

See All
Design Yesterday

Milk Proteins Could Be The Packaging Material Of The Future

A newly discovered casein-based alternative is biodegradable, sustainable and even edible

Technology Yesterday

Intel’s New System Will Help Technology See And Understand The World

Joule is a tiny board for developers designed to bring powerful computer vision to cheap and easy-to-make prototypes


Jay Parkinson

Health, wellness, fitness

Design Yesterday

This LA Hotel Is Designed Specifically For Cocktail Drinkers

The Walker Inn is a new Los Angeles "Bed and Beverage" experience that offers guests an intimate setting for their night cap

Education Yesterday

Bringing Virtual Reality And Telepresence Robotics To E-Learning

This Learning Management System is embracing new technologies to reallocate teaching resources to where they should be going

Advertising Yesterday

Interactive Art Exhibition For Dogs Provides Endless Fun

Installations created by artist Dominic Wilcox are based on activities loved by canines, such as fetching tennis balls and splashing in water


Future Of Work
Cultivating The Next Generation Of Leaders

PSFK Op-Ed august 24, 2016

Why Building Better Offices Is The Key To Employee Engagement

Interaction Designer and Audio-visual Technologist at ESI Design illustrates the value in creating environments filled with surprise and delight

PSFK Labs august 24, 2016

PSFK’s Workplace Vision: The Annual Review Becomes An Everyday, Collaborative Activity

Our Future of Work vision is a web-based platform through which teams can collaborate on and monitor performance reviews across all channels, ensuring a happier workplace

Beauty Yesterday

Design Your Own Custom Watch Faces

Customize your wrist device with Garmin's new app that lets you display personalized images or patterns

Syndicated Yesterday

How The Olympics Taught Us Lessons In Cloud Analytics

Dan Vesset, group VP for analytics and information management at IDC, tells how cloud-based business analytics support decision-making

Beauty Yesterday

Retail Expert: What Sustainability Means To The Millennial Generation

Jo Godden, Founder of RubyMoon, discusses how brands can limit their environmental impact worldwide

Arts & Culture Yesterday

Artist Shuts Down Sexist Comments By Turning Them Into Images

Rora Blue explores social stigma in a photo series titled 'Handle With Care'

Arts & Culture Yesterday

Japanese Face Wash Creates A Perfect Rose Every Time

Kanebo's latest addition to the Evita line includes an application that dispenses cleanser in the shape of a flower


Innovation Debrief: Boston
Business Concepts Born In 'The Hub'

Mobile Yesterday

Twitter Bot Will Warn You If You Are A Troll

An online tool developed out of Intel's Hack Harassment movement helps filter out or notify cyber bullies

Retail Yesterday

Passengers Can Now Earn Airline Miles For Sharing Their Location Data

The Frequent Flyer app measures background data and gives travelers points that can be exchanged for tickets with participating airlines

Advertising Yesterday

The NBA Is Releasing Two Original Shows To Stream On Twitter

The sports league announced a deal that demonstrates an interesting expansion of its content strategy

No search results found.