Features

Site tracks illness through social media

WASHINGTON – You might not consider Tweets such as “Missing the Redskins game because of the flu, ugh :( #worstday” as groundbreaking advancement in science, but Graham Dodge, founder and CEO of the disease-tracking site Sickweather.com, thinks they are.

Sickweather.com uses social media updates to follow outbreaks of the flu, allergies and other illnesses around the country. Sickweather scans posts about sickness and gathers the data to form an interactive map.

The Baltimore-based company launched the site in 2011.

Now, Sickweather is introducing a smartphone app in six to eight weeks that will alert users every time they are in the vicinity of a sick person.

The Sickweather app uses “geosensing” to notify people when they are entering a sick zone. Soon, before you enter a Starbucks or sit on a crowded city bus, you will be able to know if some people inside have had a fever in the past 24 hours, or a chickenpox-ridden child at home.

Experts in the medical field say that information gathered via social media could be helpful, but should only be used in conjunction with traditional outbreak research.

“We are open to that kind of thing. At this point it can’t replace tried and true techniques,” said Dr. Lucy Wilson, of Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “I think if it can be validated and shown to fit with surveillance trends then yes, it has that potential.”

Data on illnesses the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene collects from hospitals, nursing homes, jails or other institutions can take up to six months to validate.

Wilson, chief of the department’s Center For Surveillance, Infection Prevention, and Outbreak Response, also said the public health system already has various groups that use social media for markers of different health issues.

Sickweather uses a patent-pending algorithm and is advised by Michael J. Paul and Mark Dredz of Johns Hopkins University, who created a model to track illness via Twitter.

Their equation collects certain keywords from Twitter like “flu,” “sick,” and “sneezing,” to create a map of general locations where the most keywords appear. Although Paul and Dredz admit that Twitter doesn’t always give the most scientifically accurate results, the information they do receive is valuable for getting a broad sense of where diseases are heading.

Sickweather predicted last year’s early flu season six weeks before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dodge said.

Sickweather’s advantage, Dodge said, is that it works in real time. Google’s Flu Trends, for example, is on a 48-hour lag and reports from CDC can be several weeks behind.



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