AODG Report 1 from John Tigue

JohnTigue edited this page Dec 5, 2014 · 32 revisions

This report was prepared by John Tigue ahead of the Africa Open Data Group (AODG) conference call of December 5th, 2014. It includes a status report of Tigue's action items from the group's previous meeting. It also introduces various things produced while following through on the action items, including:

The primary take away is that while surveying the situation (Tigue's original action items) it became clear that there are deeper issues which Tigue believes can be addressed with the proposed Outbreak Time Series Specification, which hopefully can break future log jams preventing the early, factual dissemination of outbreak numbers.

The EbolaMapper visualization tools are the proof of the concept yet they are general purpose enough so that they can be reused in future outbreaks. Both the software and the spec are in development and will be usable by the end of December 2014.

Table of contents


The previous meeting of the Africa Open Data Group was on November 7th, 2014, during which the Ebola Open Data Jam was reviewed. Tigue went away from that meeting with action items to:

  • review the datasets cataloged during the Jam, at
  • code up some visualizations with those datasets

In the process of following through on the above action items, deeper issues became clear as illustrated by the story of open data around the 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa. To address both the above action items and the deeper issues, which are not specific to the current ebola outbreak, the following two closely related projects have been started since the previous meeting of the group.

  • The Outbreak Time Series Specification is a simple spec for defining Web service APIs and machine readable documents which represent time series of epidemic outbreaks.
  • EbolaMapper is a new open source software project for Web components which can read data conformant to the Outbreak Time Series Specification, and optionally visualize such outbreaks.

This report is a page in a wiki

This document is a page in a hosted wiki. GitHub is the Website where programmers share and collaborate on source code. In this case the project is called EbolaMapper. The sidebar to the right of this text, entitle Pages, list all the pages in this wiki alphabetical by title.

This document weaves this wiki into a coherent story with many links into the rest of this wiki. This report is short and high level, yet the links quickly lead down into the technical nitty gritty of an open source project.

Survey of the Web's ebola 2014 outbreak data and visualizations

The good news is that since our previous meeting, the Africa Open Data Group Conference Call of November 7th, 2014, the Web's availability of quality ebola outbreak visualizations has increased significantly. See this wiki's Gallery of Ebola Visualizations Found Across the Web for multiple examples, some of which are highly interactive.

One of Tigue's action items from the previous meeting was to review the datasets on See Datasets Listed on for brief comments on each of the 32 datasets. That page in turn links into detailed technical analysis of some of the more interesting datasets. In summary is a short list which can be found at Recommendations for Data to Use in Web Apps.

The conclusion of the above mentioned analysis is that by mid October Web app usable data was available, in the form of CSV files and a smattering of JSON hiding in places. Representative sources are cataloged in this wiki's page, Ebola Outbreak Data on the Web Overview. Some examples worth noting:

  1. On 2014-10-16 Hans Rosling tweeted, "The UN data on the Ebola epidemic is now freely available on the Internet" That data seems to be based on one of the datasets cataloged by the Ebola Data Jam, specifically Caitlin Rivers' GitHub, which is very good work.

  2. Currently, The UN's OCHA ROWCA is updating a quality dataset on the UN OCHA Humanitarian Data Exchange (HDX). (The Ebola Data Jam also found this dataset.) This dataset is getting widely used, for example see the New York Times' ebola visualization. It is assumed that this dataset also drives the HDX ebola outbreak visualization. (It is an open question as to whether or not this dataset is derived from the Rivers dataset. The former is a spreadsheet, the latter is CSV.)

  3. On 2014-11-12 HDX blogged about ebola data API experimentation. Although this is not a dataset, this is relevant to point out here because APIs are what are really needed to solve this sort of problem.

Once data was available the count of high quality ebola outbreak visualizations increased, as evidence by this wiki's gallery. Yet, the situation would be much better if there were a standard API for outbreak time series thereby enabling interoperability.


Three people deserve special mention for their excellent work in this area, see Other Coders for more details.

  • Caitlin Rivers has manually collected outbreak time series data and maintained it in a GitHub repository, which currently gets updated API-grade CSV files roughly daily with 27 people contributing to the repository.
  • Simon Johnson has banged out by far the best visualizations to date.
  • Luis Capelo has done excellent work at the HDX on the back end repository and their ebola dashboard.


In researching this topic it became clear that the core issue is that there is a serious problem with getting outbreak data publicly available and visualized early in an emergency.

The heart of the data publishing process for the 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa started out with motivated volunteers manually screen scraping data from Web pages and PDFs. The screen scraping became somewhat automated later on but still this is 2014!

The convoluted story of how usable open data on the ebola outbreak was built up should never have happened and must be prevented from reoccurring during future outbreaks. Bravo to the folks who worked on the problem but the situation is completely unacceptable in this day and age.

Another issue raised is that software tools must not assume a persistent network connection. The West African context of the current ebola outbreak has made it clear that outbreak monitoring tools need to work in remote contexts without access to the Internet, which is simply not how most Web sites are designed, see Internet and InterNOT for more details.

Next Actions

As Rob Baker(@rrbaker) at USAID tweeted:

A main takeaway from #iccmnyc: stop building closed off, complex shit. Help an org turn their Excel files into APIs.

Once good data can be easily accessed then engagingly interactive visualizations can illustrate an outbreak story. This seems like a perfect situation for open source code reading open data through some simple API. Defining APIs and writing software is what Tigue does professionally. So, this open source project, EbolaMapper, has been started with the following goals.

  1. Define a simple epidemiological Outbreak Time Series Specification for use by Web services etc.
  2. Develop open source Web visualizations that engagingly present data read via the Outbreak Dashboard API

Hopefully, the above mentioned spec and software will accelerate the diffusion across the Web of high-quality visualizations of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak and, arguably more valuably, prepare for quickly visualizing future outbreaks.

These Web page based tools are being designed to work without live Internet access.

It is a goal of this project to very quickly support the deployment of Ebola 2014 Outbreak visualizations on various Web sites (governmental, NGO, philanthropics, news outlets, and blogs). This will help maintain the current outbreak's visibility in the public's mind.

After validation of this effort is realized by helping the world to visualize the 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa, the tools will be thoroughly documented so that they are at the ready for the next outbreak, global or local.

Call to action

If all this sounds interesting to you then please jump in and help with this open source project. All skills, technical or not, can be brought to bear.

Further information

Tigue's blog posts on the topic can be found at:

Most information is in this project's wiki:

To contact Tigue, the LinkedIn profile has the info.

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