Worried where the flu is? There’s an app for that

by Tom Ulrich on June 3, 2011

Photo: @alviseni/Flickr

Before you know it, flu season – that miserable time of sneezing, snuffling, coughing, and generally feeling blah – will be upon us again. And as with anything, the best way to deal with the flu is to be prepared for it.

But when, exactly, is the right time to start stocking up on tissues and looking for vaccination clinics? You could go with the conventional wisdom: Get the annual flu vaccine in the fall and spend the next five months avoiding anyone with bleary eyes and a runny nose.

Or, to try to get a more targeted read on when the flu will appear in your town, you could turn to the power of the web. In 2008 – a few months before H1N1 influenza appeared on the scene – Google launched Google Flu Trends, which mined user search data to gauge flu activity on a national, state, and even (in some cases) city level.

The H1N1 outbreak proved to be a tipping point for online disease tracking tools. Recognizing this, the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is getting into the act with the CDC Flu App Challenge. A contest run through Challenge.gov, the Flu App Challenge encourages developers to come up with “an innovative use of technology to raise awareness of influenza and/or educate consumers on ways to prevent and treat the flu.” Submitted apps – for the web, for desktop computers, for mobile devices – use publicly available data feeds, including at least one maintained by the CDC, to promote healthy behavior for flu prevention. All of the submitted apps are eligible for several awards, including a People’s Choice Award chosen by public vote.

Flu Near You

The pool of 96 submitted apps includes Flu Near You, an application developed by John Brownstein and his team in the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program. Flu Near You aggregates CDC flu activity data, vaccination data, and rates of influenza-like illness calculated by Google Flu Trends to provide a comprehensive, real-time visualization of flu activity across the US. The app also provides a state-by-state list of information and resources about flu prevention and vaccination. You can even uss it to keep up on flu-related news and, if you have that flu-like feeling, file a report that will, in the future, be used to generate a real-time, user-contributed map of flu activity.

“We want to make both traditional and novel influenza surveillance data more accessible to a broad audience in a real-time view,” Brownstein says. “By providing geographically relevant information, we hope we can help encourage the public to engage in prevention efforts like vaccination.”

Flu’s not the only thing creating a buzz

This is not Brownstein’s first foray into using public data for disease surveillance. His Computational Epidemiology Group is also the home of HealthMap, a web-based system for tracking global reports of disease outbreaks. It taps into a variety of data sources including Google News, ProMED (a global disease reporting system run by the International Society for Infectious Diseases) and user-submitted reports to create a dashboard of the state of the world with regards to infectious disease. HealthMap has spun off other projects like the Outbreaks Near Me iPhone and Android apps and DengueMap, a surveillance collaboration with the CDC focused on dengue (an emerging mosquito-borne virus endemic to more than 100 tropical counties; by some estimates, 55 percent of the world’s population is at risk for dengue infection).

Google Dengue Trends

In addition, Brownstein’s group recently teamed up with Google.org to release Google Dengue Trends, a new tool based on the Google Flu Trends concept that uses anonymized Google search data from five countries in which dengue is endemic – Bolivia, Brazil, India, Indonesia, and Singapore – to try to detect emerging dengue outbreaks quickly. “By using search data, we’re tapping into a freely-available, instant dataset that can be gathered, analyzed, and released much more quickly and at much lower effort and cost than through traditional national surveillance and reporting programs,” says Brownstein, who, along with his Google collaborators, published a paper last month on the methodology behind the tool. “This information can act as a supplement to traditional surveillance and reporting systems and give local authorities a leg up on an outbreak.”

[Ed note: Let your voice be heard! Visit the CDC Flu App Challenge by June 7 and vote for Flu Near You for the People’s Choice Award, which includes a $2,500 prize to the developer(s) of the winning app. The results will be announced on June 8.]

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