In 1918, an epidemic of influenza took countless lives across the globe. Today, research on the so-called Spanish influenza focuses on the disease’s origination and development (pathogenesis) and the social, historical, and policy-related implications of the pandemic. 

The increasing digitization of historical documents and new computational analytics provide opportunities for research innovations.

An interdisciplinary team of Virginia Tech faculty and researchers from the departments of history and English in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the computer science department in the College of Engineering, as well as others from University Libraries, is exploring how methods relying on computational strategies to mine data archives can be used for both practical and research purposes. 

Over the last two years, the team has applied data mining tools to digitized historical newspapers in the Library of Congress’s “Chronicling America” database.

The “Digging into Data” project team at Virginia Tech will host a research symposium entitled “An Epidemiology of Information: New Methods for Interpreting Disease and Data,” which will take place at the Virginia Tech Research Center in Arlington, Va., on Thursday, Oct. 17, from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The symposium is a unique public forum through which policy makers, public health experts, and scholars can address pressing questions about how the analysis of large-scale data sets can inform research and policy approaches to epidemic disease.

Panelists will consider what these new methods suggest about the implications of data mining as a disease surveillance mechanism. The symposium will also explore how these methods can help to answer lingering questions about the spread of the Spanish flu, its pathogenicity and unusual mortality rates, and the effectiveness of public health responses. Overall the symposium demonstrates a unique collaboration between humanities scholars, computer scientists, and public health experts to explore the research and policy implications of data mining.

Featured speakers include Dr. Jeffery Taubenberger, chief of the National Institutes of Health’s Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section in the Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. David Morens, senior advisor to the director, NIAID. Their research in data analysis and historical epidemiology has influenced the approaches being adopted and adapted by digital humanities scholars working in the history of medicine.

An “Epidemiology of Information” is free and open to the public, but space is limited and registration is required. For more information and to register, visit the project website

“An Epidemiology of Information” is made possible in part from support received by Virginia Tech through the international Digging into Data Challenge competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Funding for Virginia Tech’s Canadian partner, the Center for E-Health Initiatives of the University of Toronto, comes from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

At Virginia Tech, this project is supported by the Institute for Society, Culture, and Environment and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science. The support of these programs results from a commitment to advance interdisciplinary research that connects technological applications to the insights derived from the humanities and social sciences.

The symposium is co-sponsored by the National Institutes of Health’s National Library of Medicine, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Office of Digital Humanities, and Virginia Tech's National Capital Region Operations.