Clouds Of Flu, Not Rain, Blanket The Map In This Weather App

Apr 4, 2015

If you’ve been looking this flu season for a way to find out what pathogens are floating around town, there’s an app for that.

A few years ago tech-developer Graham Dodge came down with a stomach virus and, as someone interested in data, he wondered if there was a way to track his ailment in the area he lived to try and get a better picture of how he got sick.

“I just wanted to know if something was going around in my area, or if I had food poisoning. I happened to then be on Facebook later that day, and saw a friend of mine reporting the same symptoms that I had,” Dodge said. “That’s when it occurred to me, based on my background in data aggregation, that social media could be used as a real time source of data to understand these real time trends where illnesses are emerging.”

Thus was born the Sickweather app.

“Sickweather is like the Doppler radar for sickness. So, just as Doppler radar scans the skies for indications of bad weather, Sickweather scans social media and uses crowd sourcing to understand which illnesses are going around in any given area at any time,” Dodge said.

The app scans through the Facebook and Twitter pages of its users looking for key words like fever, sore throat or stuffy nose, and then plots the movement of these symptoms and provides reports on trending illnesses.

Last week, while investigating the app for this story, I coincidentally came down with flu-like symptoms. I reported to the app how I was feeling, and later in the week I received a text from Sickweather informing me there was a trend in flu reports in my area. A map showed an ominous red-hued cloud floating over Cache Valley.

Skeptics might ask, ‘How accurate can reports gathered using social media information really be?’

“In one study looking at flu tweets related to the CDC’s influenza-like illness data from the same time period, we found a .96 out of a perfect 1.0 correlation, with the main differences being that the social media data, the Twitter data was two-weeks ahead of the CDC,” Dodge said.

Health Educator with the Utah Department of Health, Rebecca Ward, said while apps like this can help spread awareness of health concerns, a physician should still be contacted for a proper diagnosis when poor health arises.

“I think the positive aspect of this particular application would be that it can increase awareness about some of the diseases that may be circulating,” Ward said. “Again, it’s not necessarily verifiable data, with people tweeting out or putting on Facebook what they are experiencing, but it may provide some information, like ‘Oh, well there actually may be some respiratory illnesses circulating, so if I’m seeing some of these symptoms, maybe I should call my healthcare provider and get more information.’”

Dodge said the intended purpose behind Sickweather is to promote health-conscious behavior like proper hand-washing and healthier food choice, when the numbers of reported illnesses begin to rise.

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