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A Powerful Partnership Propels the Fight Against Climate-Fueled Disease

It’s 2030, dawn, in a home in rural India.

Shanti wakes drenched in a feverish sweat, with body aches, a raspy cough, and the knowledge that she is far from a medical clinic.

From her bed, she launches an app on her phone and speaks in her native dialect as if conversing with a family confidante. With her consent, the app “listens” as she coughs deliberately and describes her symptoms.

In digital alchemy, her symptoms merge with a chorus of other data.

Based on calculations of possible diagnoses and an urgency score, it determines an immediate teleconsultation would be the best course of action.

The app provides Shanti with a link to a doctor.

Simultaneously, the details of her condition integrate into a life-saving early-warning system—the result of a powerful collaboration between data scientists and innovators, government administrators, university researchers, public health officials, and frontline healthcare workers.

A few hours later and many miles away, public health officials review a dashboard with easy-to-interpret visualizations based on encrypted data from Shanti and other frontline patients.

They spot a perilous trend in an infectious disease – more common now as extreme weather makes hundreds of diseases worse, hampering people’s ability to cope and straining public health resources.

The decision-makers, clear on the location and nature of the threat, take swift action to save lives: ramping up testing centers, mobilizing medicine, and launching preventative education campaigns.

The Artificial Intelligence & Robotics Technology Park (ARTPARK), a non-profit driving equitable advances in artificial intelligence (AI), is working to make this vision of a proactive health alert system a reality—with a project focused on a climate-fueled dengue fever outbreak as the first step.

A drawing from ARTPARK shows their vision for future healthcare. (Photo courtesy of ARTPARK)
  • Work underway at ARTPARK to build a dengue platform (Photo Courtesy of ARTPARK)
    Work underway at ARTPARK to build a dengue platform. (Photo courtesy of ARTPARK)

Weaving Together Diverse Data for Impactful Insights

The work on the dengue platform is creating a crucial template for other diseases. The Rockefeller Foundation is backing this dengue initiative, along with a parallel project in Brazil, to demonstrate how bringing together data scientists and policy implementers can drive an efficient, effective response to public health threats, including those worsened by climate change.

“We chose geographies where local government officials and researchers sought active collaboration, embraced innovation and had the foundational infrastructure and sufficient data,” said Manisha Bhinge, Managing Director for The Rockefeller Foundation’s Health Initiative. “But our findings affirm that this partnership between data scientists and government leaders can transform global healthcare in the coming decade.”

  • graphic that has text that reads "data pipeline, we have created robust, automated data pipelines for processing and standardizing multi-modal data into machine readable formats. The data pipeline is available for research, analysis, and innovations"
    Image sourced from ARTPARK.

Necessity Births a Key Partnership

Data scientists and government leaders often have different rhythms and constraints.

But a union of necessity was forged in the crucible of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As government leaders grappled with the challenge of saving lives without destroying livelihoods during lockdowns of indeterminate lengths in speculative regions, they turned to researchers for a science-based approach.


“Data-driven tools and analytics were used for both day-to-day decisions and policies for lockdowns, vaccinations, and more. It was the first time data science was being used at such scale and frequency to help set public health policy,” said Rohit Satish, ARTPARK’s Director of Health Data Initiatives.

“And as the Covid crisis slowed, that led to the next question: what other infectious diseases can data help us fight?”

This alliance is as complex as it is exciting.

Dr. Bhaskar Rajakumar understands well how to merge the needs of data scientists and implementers. He joined  ARTPARK as Director for Healthcare Programs after working closely with the government, when he led the Central War Room for the Covid-19 pandemic in Bengaluru. A trained clinician and technology entrepreneur, he has long been focused on how to improve medicine by incorporating technology.

Three Steps To Create the Platform

Rajakumar noted that three steps were required to generate the initial dengue platform.

  1. First, the team created a simple system that could be used by all community healthcare workers in the field to collect, store, and share data in a unified format.
  2. Then the team analyzed up to a decade’s worth of retrospective dengue data. “It was a significant amount of data, but in different formats and frequencies,” Rajakumar said. “It took us about three months to understand, clean, and standardize it.”
  3. Finally, the team is working with different government departments and exploring layering additional factors on case data that might help with understanding and predicting public health emergencies—wastewater, air quality, population mobility, weather, infrastructure, topography, and even trash pickup schedules.

Bridging the divide between multiple interdisciplinary teams required constant communication, negotiation, and follow-up. Through it all, ARTPARK  collected feedback directly from those using the system in government offices and the field, and then made real-time adjustments.

“It’s been a journey,” Satish said. “But eventually, we’d like to have models that predict disease outbreaks and support policy decisions even in places where little data is available. That’s the aim.”

Policy Implementers and data scientists in India meet to collaborate on new dengue digital platform (Photo Courtesy of ARTPARK)
Policy Implementers and data scientists in India meet to collaborate on new dengue digital platform. (Photo courtesy of ARTPARK)

“Headlines about AI lurch between hype and fear,” said ARTPARK CEO Raghu Dharmaraju, who has spent the last two decades bridging innovation and social impact. “And much of the conversation about ‘AI for good’ is only about not causing harm. That’s not good enough,”

“The question is how do we use data science and AI tools to help underserved populations? How do we use them deliberately to level the playing field for broad societal benefit? Using data to make population-scale decisions is one obvious answer.”

The dengue app, said Rajakumar, is “creating the template that we can use for many other diseases.” In fact, interest is coalescing around having data scientists look at the best interventions for not only other communicable diseases, but everything from cancer to rabies to heat stroke made more prevalent by a warming climate.

“There are around 236 sub-districts in Karnataka alone with varied disease outbreak patterns and diversity in weather, socio-demography, and geography, among others,” Satish said. “How should the state public health machinery prioritize its resources across the year? With heatwaves across the country, if people wear hats, or take a different route because of tree cover, what’s the impact on human health? We see a lot of potential for data science to help answer these questions.”

Climate Change Contributes to Disease Spikes

About half the world’s population – four billion people – live in areas where there is a danger of contracting dengue, and another two billion could be at risk if temperatures continue to rise, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Globally, there has been a 30- to 50-fold increase in dengue occurrences in tropical and subtropical regions in the past 50 years, due to a variety of factors including climate change, global trade and travel, and urbanization.

In Bengaluru, dengue cases jumped by 140 percent in July. The mosquito-borne communicable disease is also on the rise in other cities in India as longer rainy seasons and more frequent floods allow mosquitos to thrive.

  • Image sourced from Council on Foreign Relations.
Patient in Rural India Receives Treatment from a Community Healthcare Worker

This project currently covers about 68.4 million people in the southwestern state of Karnataka, with Bengaluru as its capital, and the city of Pune in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

All of this points to the critical need to have predictive tools in place for public health leaders, from the government to the community.

“Creating high-quality data sets for screening and diagnostics will take the involvement of many medical research institutes,” Dharmaraju said. “So we are building such a system working with ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research).”

“By the time you have to test humans, it could be too late,” he added. “That’s what we learned from Covid.”

So ARTPARK works to embed data-driven disease surveillance and modeling in public health (typically limited to humans) as well as livestock/wildlife programs.

The team works with government stakeholders and programs at the national level to build a shared strategic approach, and also at the state and city levels to create viable starting points and make tangible progress.

In rural India, some 1.25 million frontline community healthcare workers form the backbone of the Indian health system, and another 64,000 operate in urban areas, Dharmaraju notes. He hopes that in the near future, not only would an individual patient access an app when feeling sick, but community healthcare workers in the country would also have more tools at their fingertips.

This would pave the way not only for comprehensive primary care to address sources of ill health and treat diseases earlier, but for additional reliable community health data to support early warning systems.