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Infonaut CEO Niall Wallace, above, and his partner, Matt McPherson, created three software products that turn infection information into maps.Peter Power/The Globe and Mail

In 1854, Dr. John Snow plotted cholera cases on a map of London, England, to find the source of a serious outbreak that was killing hundreds of people. It became apparent that the biggest clusters of the disease were near a public water pump on Broad Street, and Dr. Snow was able to stop the spread by shutting down that source.

Fast-forward one-and-a-half centuries to Toronto, where a small firm is using 21st-century software to create maps with similar goals - the containment of disease - by showing infection patterns that can be understood at a glance.

Infonaut Inc. chief executive officer Niall Wallace and his partner, chief operating officer Matt McPherson, both former IT consultants for the Ontario government, created the company after helping to craft some of the recommendations that resulted from the SARS outbreak of 2003. They understood the value of visually represented, real-time infection data, and left government to set up Infonaut to develop that technology.

Infonaut has created three software products that turn infection information into maps. All are being tested in pilot projects and will soon be marketed commercially.

One, called Infection Watch Live, is now taking data gathered at 14 hospital emergency rooms in eastern Ontario and using it to create publicly accessible maps that show exactly where in the region cases of influenza and gastrointestinal diseases are active. Another, Hospital Watch Live, is being tested in Sault Ste. Marie. It uses radio sensors attached to a hospital's employees, patients and equipment to create a detailed record of all movements and interactions. This complex mapping can help monitor and stop the spread of C. difficile and other superbugs.

The third product, called Regional Watch Live, generates maps and reports for regional health professionals by merging lab test results with a range of other information.

With the H1N1 flu outbreak, these tools now seem particularly relevant. But that presents Infonaut with a dilemma: Can it benefit from growing awareness of the danger of infections without appearing to be exploiting the situation? "We've got all these communications and marketing activities that are just about to kick in," Mr. Wallace said. "But we definitely don't want to seem untoward and [look like we're]taking advantage of it. It is a fine line."


What the experts say

There's nothing wrong with Infonaut using the H1N1 flu outbreak to gain exposure, as long as the company is careful in the tone it takes, said John Lute, president of Toronto communications firm Lute and Co.

"You do have to be careful when you are stepping into an area that is causing pretty widespread concern," Mr. Lute said. "You want to be very, very conscious of not appearing to be exploitive."

On the other hand, it will clearly create an opportunity if Infonaut can increase its profile, "which helps it to get its story out, which helps it to get investors, which helps it to grow. All those things are good."

Infonaut should ensure that its message is understated and that the company is not an "ambulance chaser," Mr. Lute said. The fact that its potential clients are hospitals, institutions and professionals makes that job a lot easier. "They are in a much stronger position than somebody who, for example, starts having sales on face masks," he said.

Mat Wilcox, who runs the Wilcox Group, a Vancouver-based public relations firm, agrees that Infonaut should move ahead with its marketing plans.

"I don't think these guys are taking unfair advantage of this situation, when it is in everyone's face," Ms. Wilcox said after taking a recent flight from Toronto to Vancouver, where workers in both airports were wearing face masks, as were several people on the plane.

But the company does need to give straightforward information about how its products might help mitigate an outbreak in the future, and not exaggerate its promises, she said.

In particular, it needs to be upfront about the state of its pilot tests and include details of when full versions of its products will be available. It also must explain how much funding they will need to get there, Ms. Wilcox said.

"Many times I'll say to clients: 'You're not there yet. You've got way too many holes to even go out there,' " she said. "Everyone would like to get attention to their project ... but sometimes they are not ready and don't have enough of a story to tell."

Shane Dolgin, senior vice-president of public relations agency Edelman Canada, said the key test in this kind of situation is whether the product has a benefit to the public.

With Infonaut, there seems to be no question that there is a public gain, he said. "If it is just an opportunistic attempt to cash in on the misfortune of others, that tends to play badly. Where a company has something that can be tied to the public interest, such as in this case ... it is very low-risk."

He suggests that Infonaut make good use of its pilot test partners, such as the counties in eastern Ontario that are testing the Infection Watch Live system. "It is far more credible to have third parties who are using it - and can speak to the public benefit - deliver those messages," Mr. Dolgin said.

He also said the company should forestall any concerns over privacy issues by spelling out how it ensures data on individuals are kept confidential.


In a nutshell

  • There's nothing wrong with using the current concerns over H1N1 flu to gain exposure, as long as Infonaut is careful about taking a calm and respectful tone to its marketing and publicity.
  • Make sure to present straightforward information about how the company's products might help mitigate an outbreak in the future, but do not exaggerate promises.
  • Be upfront about the state of pilot tests, the timelines to get the software to market, and how much funding will be needed to go to full commercialization.
  • Use respected third-party partners to endorse the products, a move that will give the company more credibility.
  • If there are privacy concerns, spell them out and detail how they are being addressed.

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