Incontext 78: Open Data is the Best Vaccine for Vector-borne Diseases


The battle against dengue fever and other vector-borne diseases depends heavily on analysis of epidemiological information in order to generate adaptable and efficient actions for containment. To achieve efficiency in these actions, health authorities of all countries must collaborate to produce information that facilitates decision-making under urgent and emergency conditions. If public health data reporting and management were subject to the Open Data philosophy, then cooperation among governments would be more efficient. Furthermore,  other actors (researchers, academics, journalists, NGOs, etc.) would be able to use this data to develop additional analyses to complement government research and public policies.

Incontext 78-1

Dengue is one of the world’s most fastly spreading diseases. The incidence of dengue has increased 30 times over during the past 50 years. Dengue affects approximately 390 million people[1], almost 6% of the world population. This disease has become a growing problem both in terms of the steep increase in the number of reported cases and its recorded expansion into newly affected zones. Three main causes for dengue’s climb include: high mobility among  people, unplanned urban growth, and global warming. The first cause, high mobility, contributes to the spread of the dengue virus. Unplanned urban growth creates optimal conditions for breeding of the Aedes aegypti mosquito and vector-borne transmission in high-density populations. The third cause, global warming, has expanded the habitat (humid zones with high temperatures) of the mosquito and virus to an additional 36 countries which, until recently, were classified as dengue-free by the World Health Organization (WHO).[2]

The scenario of vector-borne disease becomes more complex when we include those related to dengue: chikungunya and the zika virus. These previously lesser-known afflictions are transmitted by the same Aedes aegypti mosquito and manifest similar symptoms. Moreover, they have gained importance in recent months due to the increased number of detected cases and– in the case of zika—correlation to autoimmune disorders or microcephaly in newborns whose mothers were infected during pregnancy.[3]

To combat a global challenge of this magnitude, the data collected by governments and supranational public health entities are of vital importance. Use of statistical data on vector-borne  diseases, together with temporal and geographic correlations, may help forecast the evolution of an epidemic and allow for development of detection and early warning systems. These systems eventually could prevent new epidemics.

The problem in this ideal scenario, however, lies in the fact that local and national public health reporting mechanisms are highly variable, and data are published in formats that make their reutilization difficult. The lack of a universal standard for data publication makes integrating information from diverse sources difficult and, therefore, results in less than desirable response times from organizations charged with fighting such epidemics.[4]

The adoption of a universal standard for reporting the status of vector-borne diseases, based on Open Data shared by governments via Open Knowledge platforms, may be the simplest and least costly way to accelerate actions to arrest the epidemic. If so, the drive for Open Government and Open Data policies may mean the difference between life and death for a significant portion of the world population.

Open Data, Open Knowledge, Open Government

According to the Open Knowledge FoundationOpen Data is a philosophy proposing that certain types of data be in open format and available to all worldwide, without copyrights, patents, or other control mechanisms. The philosophy is based on the idea that raw data—  as in the case of randomized numbers or letters of the alphabet—  does not have value per se.  Examples of raw data may include: measures of climactic conditions, the number of buses running in a given city, or the number of patients seeking services at a certain public hospital. The codification of data, when used appropriately, allows the user to extract information and create knowledge. Just as a bunch of letters (distributed in the correct order) may become a book, data (once catalogued and placed at the disposition of all) will allow academics, journalists, public servants, and private citizens to generate new information and knowledge. Open data democratizes access to information.

Open Knowledge refers to information and knowledge (programs, music, books, etc.) created and intended for use by anyone, without the need to purchase a license to do so. The Open Knowledge philosophy may be applied to any type of intellectual work through open licensing models, such the Creative Commons. Today a broad range of information technology products (such as the Linux operating system or Mozilla Firefox web browser) are developed as open software.

Finally, the concept of Open Government refers to a political doctrine characterized by adoption of the Open Data philosophy as applied to government management, such that citizens are able to collaborate in the development and improvement of public services in a robust environment of transparency and accountability. Specifically, Open Government refers to the manifestation of certain principles in order to:

Latin America is one of the most advanced regions in the adoption of an Open Government philosophy. Countries such as Uruguay, Mexico, Paraguay, and Colombia already have legislation driven by State secretariats and ministries to allow access to public information. Uruguay’s case is emblematic among the world’s most advanced countries in terms of the implementation of Open Government practices. It has undertaken the most proactive efforts to integrate civil society and the private sector in processes to design Open Data management platforms and their subsequent use for any means.

To promote the adoption and implementation of these philosophies, Fundación Avina and the International Development and Research Center (IDRC) launched the Iniciativa Latinoamericana de Datos Abiertos (ILDA) in 2013. ILDA describes itself as a node of activity where governments, international institutions, activists, and experts converge to advance the agenda of Open Data in Latin America. Its aim is to promote research as well as the use and appropriation of Open Data in the region. The initiative proposes to achieve this goal by advocating for public policies for Open Data and Open Knowledge; raising awareness among and training of public servants on Open Government issues; and developing academic research to support the appropriation and use of Open Data by all societal sectors. ILDA’s actions are implemented by the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Organization of American States (OAS), and Fundación Avina.

Open Data and Dengue

With the support ILDA, a Paraguayan research group led by engineer Juan Pane developed a data reporting model that includes all dimensions and variables correlated to dengue. The proposed model’s innovation is that reports can be created and published using Open Data standards and principles. At present, the majority of health information monitoring system reports are processed and presented as maps or graphics (as opposed to raw data), hindering reutilization of the information. The free availability of raw data would allow any public or private organization to  create platforms or tools that are innovative, easily re-usable, and adaptable to other regions. Re-usability is of vital importance for countries with fewer resources for research and development. The research on open reporting and vector-borne diseases is available for download as Open Knowledge.

Pane and his team’s proposal is not a unique case. Similar studies (to be presented in future editions of InContext) analyze the feasibility of Open Data use in relation to national educational systems, legislative control, participatory budgeting,  judicial systems, and urban sustainability, among other contexts.

Adopting a universal Open Standard in various areas of public governance brings only benefits. It streamlines the government decision-making process while gaining allies and collaborators among civil society and the private sector. Thanks to similar research, Open Data may become a crucial tool for solving problems traditionally relegated to the innermost public offices or universities. Access to Open Data puts the power to influence their own well-being in the hands of the people.


[1]Enfermedades de transmisión vectorial y datos abiertos, Pane et al. (2015)

[2]Brady et al. (2012), Bhatt et al. (2013), Messina et al. (2014)

[3]World Health Organization, Zika fact sheet

[4] Innovación en la Gestión Pública y Open Government, Pane et al. (2015)

[5]Innovación en la Gestión Pública y Open Government, Ramírez-Alujas (2010).

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