A framework for enhancing spatial and temporal granularity in report-based health surveillance systems

BMC Med Inform Decis Mak. 2010 Jan 12;10:1. doi: 10.1186/1472-6947-10-1.


Background: Current public concern over the spread of infectious diseases has underscored the importance of health surveillance systems for the speedy detection of disease outbreaks. Several international report-based monitoring systems have been developed, including GPHIN, Argus, HealthMap, and BioCaster. A vital feature of these report-based systems is the geo-temporal encoding of outbreak-related textual data. Until now, automated systems have tended to use an ad-hoc strategy for processing geo-temporal information, normally involving the detection of locations that match pre-determined criteria, and the use of document publication dates as a proxy for disease event dates. Although these strategies appear to be effective enough for reporting events at the country and province levels, they may be less effective at discovering geo-temporal information at more detailed levels of granularity. In order to improve the capabilities of current Web-based health surveillance systems, we introduce the design for a novel scheme called spatiotemporal zoning.

Method: The proposed scheme classifies news articles into zones according to the spatiotemporal characteristics of their content. In order to study the reliability of the annotation scheme, we analyzed the inter-annotator agreements on a group of human annotators for over 1000 reported events. Qualitative and quantitative evaluation is made on the results including the kappa and percentage agreement.

Results: The reliability evaluation of our scheme yielded very promising inter-annotator agreement, more than a 0.9 kappa and a 0.9 percentage agreement for event type annotation and temporal attributes annotation, respectively, with a slight degradation for the spatial attribute. However, for events indicating an outbreak situation, the annotators usually had inter-annotator agreements with the lowest granularity location.

Conclusions: We developed and evaluated a novel spatiotemporal zoning annotation scheme. The results of the scheme evaluation indicate that our annotated corpus and the proposed annotation scheme are reliable and could be effectively used for developing an automatic system. Given the current advances in natural language processing techniques, including the availability of language resources and tools, we believe that a reliable automatic spatiotemporal zoning system can be achieved. In the next stage of this work, we plan to develop an automatic zoning system and evaluate its usability within an operational health surveillance system.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Demography
  • Disease Outbreaks / classification*
  • Geographic Information Systems*
  • Humans
  • Mass Media
  • Natural Language Processing*
  • Population Surveillance / methods*
  • Public Health Informatics
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Research Design