Can crowdsourcing beat the flu?

Woman blowing nose

Millions of people around the world are bracing themselves for their annual battle with flu. Could new crowdsourcing software be the answer to their prayers?

There doesn't seem to be any way out of it.

As the person next to you on the bus sneezes and you visualise tiny droplets of the virus spiralling towards you, you just know that, sooner or later, it will get you.

It seems unlikely that a smartphone application, as opposed to more tried-and-tested methods like vaccination or a face mask, could help you avoid going down with a dose of the flu this winter.

But that is what the creators of the website Sickweather, which launched this week in the US, claim.

Health professionals around the world already use online tools, such as Google Flu Trends, Health Map or Global Public Health Intelligence Network to track the spread of infectious diseases.

Researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have also launched The Flu Survey, which has recruited volunteers from 10 European countries to report symptoms and provide weekly updates of the spread of flu across the continent.

Sickweather claims to be different because it operates in real time using data from social networks, rather than news reports or internet search terms, and is designed for use by individuals, rather than public health officials. It has already been dubbed "Facebook for hypochondriacs".

People who sign up are able to look at a map of the US or the UK and see areas where others have self-reported "symptoms" marked in orange. Soon after the website launched, much of the east coast of the US appeared to be a swathe of orange, although you can burrow down to street level to see who is sick in your neighbourhood.

Sickweather website

Co-founder Graham Dodge says it is early days and the site will become more useful as more people sign up to it - but he insists it is not just about allowing people to avoid catching illnesses.

"For people trying to avoid sickness, whether they have compromised immune systems, or simply have a timely engagement that they want to stay healthy for, Sickweather can be used to see where illness is being reported all the way down to the street level, so that the user can be prepared or avoid if they choose.

"Other users may simply want validation and confirmation that they aren't alone with the symptoms they are experiencing."

Another smartphone application, Influ, launched earlier this year in the US, asks users to rate the strength of their symptoms on a red dial, before plotting their position on the map so that other app users can avoid them. It has yet to really take off.

Sickweather's chief operating officer and co-founder James Sajor says their site is different because it has developed "robust" algorithms to scan Twitter and Facebook for relevant data to add to that generated by members of its own community.

Flu facts

  • Influenza epidemics occur yearly during autumn and winter in temperate regions
  • Globally, flu causes three to five million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths a year
  • Most flu deaths in industrialized countries occur among people aged over 65
  • The virus mainly spreads through droplets made when flu sufferers cough, sneeze or talk
  • You can also get flu by touching a surface with the virus on it and then touching your mouth, eyes or nose
  • Source: World Heath Organisation, US Centre for Disease Control

The company - which is hoping to attract advertising dollars from pharmaceutical companies - is currently talking to health officials in other countries with a view to going global.

On his Twitter feed, Mr Dodge encourages fans of Stephen Soderbergh's latest film Contagion, one of a string of recent Hollywood pictures about deadly pandemics, to sign up to the site.

But Columbia University Professor Ian Lipkin, of the Mailman School of Public Health's Centre for Infection and Immunity, a scientific adviser on Contagion, is not convinced that crowdsourcing is an effective way to combat the spread of contagious diseases.

"I don't think this particular vehicle is going to be helpful," he tells BBC News.

Tales of runny noses and fever on Twitter do not offer a reliable way to track disease, he argues, as there is no way of testing their accuracy.

It is not, in any case, that hard to protect yourself from infection, he adds, particularly in the United States, where an estimated 35% of adults get vaccinated for flu every year.

In the UK, only people aged over 65 or in at-risk categories are advised to get a flu jab, with take-up in the elderly category averaging between 72% and 75%.

Professor Lipkin is one of the leading advocates of a global early warning system for contagious disease to reduce the risk of the sort of pandemic seen in Contagion.

Matt Damon in Contagion Contagion is the latest Hollywood film about a deadly global pandemic

"Right now we are in the early days. We are excited about it and we think it's going to be very important," he tells BBC News.

He believes the system should rely on a range of official sources, such as hospital admissions, prescriptions for anti-viral drug Tamiflu and sales of over-the-counter medicines, rather than anecdotal evidence culled from social media.

But has he been too quick to write off the potential of Twitter as a way of tracking the spread of viruses?

Researchers at the University of Iowa, studying the 2009 swine flu pandemic, compared fluctuations in the use of certain phrases on Twitter with flu cases reported through the US Centre for Disease Control, which has its own sophisticated flu surveillance system.

They were able to spot signs of flu in a geographical area one to two weeks faster than the CDC, which relies on reports of hospital admissions, mortality rates and other official data.

Researchers in Brazil have also used Twitter to track the spread of dengue fever, which they hope could speed up the response of the medical authorities to the disease.

The problem is that not everyone uses social media - it tends to be concentrated in major cities - and there is no guarantee people laid up in bed with a high fever will feel like broadcasting their symptoms to the world unless they are caught up in a media panic like the one around the H1N1 virus.

"What is the incentive for people to report? One does wonder why people do this," says one of the authors of the Iowa University Report, computer science professor Alberto Maria Segre.

But, he adds, these obvious drawbacks could be outweighed by one major advantage: "What's so cool about this is that we can do it in real time."

And, he stresses, the volume of often useless data generated by social media users during outbreaks of contagious diseases should not be viewed as a problem.

"The information is there. The real trick is how do you check it, how do you make it reliable. How do you make sure somebody is not playing with you for their own benefit? But the potential is there."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Yes, I'm not clear what you would do with the information. Not visit your friends if they are in the "infected" area? Shop in a less infected area.
    Sure my main source of flu is pretty unavoidable unless you want to be a bit of a hermit ie people at work, friends, family and on the tube!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    "The massive amounts of useless data created by social media should not be seen as a problem..."
    Yes it should, firstly, we don't need this sort of thing, a national govt run (anonymous) database for people to pass on this info would be better and less wasteful, also I should be considerably more worried about how little privacy I had left if I was a Facebook user (which I'm not).

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    What a load of rubbish. If you're going to catch the flu or cold, you will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Maybe we should copy Japanese etiquette and wear a surgical mask in public if you are ill.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    and by Flu 90% of the British population mean 'heavy cold'. I love hearing how people have flu for 3 days, that's not flu that is a cold, flu puts you in bed for a couple of weeks and can kill, the rest is just people believing hype, lemsip etc can't cure a viral infection as we can't cure virus' only immunise against a few of them. So if you wake up feeling rubbish in winter, think cold not flu

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I care a lot less about where they liveā€”it's more about where they WORK. I'm more likely to catch something from my workmates than my neighbors.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Oh flippin hell. Do you expect this to do anything except make someone money and someone else paranoid?
    Smart fone? Just needs a smart owner!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Another useless piece of scaremongering. Why don't you just give us some more of the usual "may cause cancer", "scientists are concerned" type of articles. Flu is much healthier than paranoia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    Idiotic solution for the quick-fix addicted generation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Doing more exercise rather than being glued to your smart-phone would be another way to avoid those winter colds...

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    What are you supposed to do with the information supplied by this 'app'?

    For most of us locking ourselves in airtight rooms is not an option. All it is going to do is make yu worry more about catching the flu even if you never catch it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Would rather have a cold than go into work.
    Flu is a deal more serious but some days even that appeals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    "I'm not coming to work today because Sickweather says 20% of my neighbourhood is ill". I don't think that'll impress the boss.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    If you're vulnerable (old, pregnant or with a history of asthma, etc.) your doc should be able to give you a flu jab. Otherwise go and pay for one.

    I can't see how "crowd sourcing" can do better than that simple advice. There are too many ways that the flu virus gets carried home. The kids at school being a primary vector.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    "Lemsip and some Aspirin"

    Glad you said that and not "Lemsip and some paracetamol" as exceeding the dose limit on paracetamol is possible as it is in many over the counter cold/flu medications as standard ingredient, so using a few together is a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Can crowdsourcing beat the flu?

    No, because you're contagious BEFORE you show symptoms so the information that you now have flu is already too late to warn others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    @2 - You won't be able to cover your mouth with your hands... You'll be too busy updating 'sickweather' on your smartphone :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Seriously just get some Lemsip and some Aspirin and man up. I've already had just about enough of people banging on about how poorly they are this autumn (it's not even winter yet). Everybody gets colds. Deal with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Employers should encourage sick workers to stay at home instead of pressuring them to struggle in to work to spread their infection.

    Everyone should also wash their hands frequently. If you have a cough or you sneeze COVER YOUR MOUTH & NOSE WITH A HANKY.

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    In the 13th century you painted a red cross on your door to mark you as a plague carrier.... in the 21st you put an orange blob on your house via a phone. Strange how little changes!


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