How Data Became One of the Most Powerful Tools to Fight an Epidemic

Jun. 19, 2020

Steven Johnson

New York Times Magazine

The River Lea originates in the suburbs north of London, winding its way southward until it reaches the city’s East End, where it empties into the Thames near Greenwich and the Isle of Dogs. In the early 1700s, the river was connected to a network of canals that supported the growing dockyards and industrial plants in the area. By the next century, the Lea had become one of the most polluted waterways in all of Britain, deployed to flush out what used to be called the city’s “stink industries.”

In June 1866, a laborer named Hedges was living with his wife on the edge of the Lea, in a neighborhood called Bromley-by-Bow. Almost nothing is known today about Hedges and his wife other than the sad facts of their demise: On June 27 of that year, both of them died of cholera.

The deaths were not in themselves notable. Cholera had haunted London since its arrival in 1832, with waves of epidemics that could kill thousands in a matter of weeks. While the disease was on the decline in recent years, a handful of cholera deaths had been reported in the preceding weeks, and it was not unheard-of for two people sharing a home to die of the disease on the same day.

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