By Leaf Arbuthnot
With over half of the world’s population living under some form of lockdown right now, many are regretting that more wasn’t done earlier to prevent the coronavirus outbreak. Yet tools to nip public health emergencies in the bud are growing more sophisticated by the day, and provide genuine grounds for hope.
One Young World Ambassador Rainier Mallol, from the Dominican Republic, is the cofounder of AIME, a software company that uses epidemiology, AI and big data to predict outbreaks. The seeds for the company were sown when Mallol's mother contracted Dengue fever when he was 16. "I felt powerless," he tells me on a video call. "It was a heavy hit. I'd not really read much about public health, and I began to. I realised that technology was stopping us from getting on top of the problem in my country."
AIME builds sophisticated models that can predict where diseases will break out. Though the company focused on Dengue at first, which infects some 400 million people per year, its scope has broadened since it was set up five years ago. “We’ve been working solely on covid for the past two months,” Mallol says, with an exhausted smile. AIME is the only private sector company to have been asked by the president of Malaysia to help map the spread of coronavirus there.
“We are creating a platform to alleviate the pressure off medical labs and hospitals,” Mallol explains. One of the difficulties in the fight against Covid-19 is that data about the illness is often collected by different groups or bodies, and not always linked up. “We are trying to streamline the data and create predictive analytics based on that, in order to flatten the curve below the level of resources available," Mallol says.
Currently, the core AIME team is made up of 12 people, but the company is expanding fast to deal with its ballooning workload. Mallol is not trained as a medical doctor but as an engineer, and believes he can make more impact in public health by harnessing his skills as an analyst and systems builder.
I ask him where countries typically make mistakes, when a disease like Covid-19 develops. “The issue is often that there’s a gap between governments and the specialists that know what to do,” he says.
AIME’s main product is a model that predicts dengue outbreaks with startling accuracy (upwards of 80 per cent). Having a crystal ball like it can save governments piles of money, as it allows them to spend in a more targeted way. “Data analytics both organises efforts and allows you to plan ahead,” Mallol says. It’s an approach that can also pay off in other areas - last year, AIME worked on a project with an NGO on femicide. It's depressing to realise that even domestic violence can be patterned and foreseen - but empowering too: forewarned is forearmed, after all.
Mallol says he continues to draw energy and motivation from his experiences at One Young World. He went to the Summits in Bogota and Ottawa, where he gave a speech climate change and public health. “I have never spoken to so many people,” he remembers, laughing.
The contacts Mallol has made through his involvement with the organisation, he adds, are invaluable. “One Young World has given my company way more visibility, too. And when I go to a new city, I always see if there is a One Young World community there. It’s great to be linked up with people who have been to the Summits. Often they’re the ones changing the world for the better.”
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