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Flu Data Goes Mobile

An iPhone app lets users help track infectious diseases.
September 10, 2009

New software for the iPhone could help track the spread of infectious diseases including swine flu by providing experts with new sources of epidemiological information.

Flu near you?: A new iPhone application lets users search their immediate area for information on infectious diseases, such as swine flu outbreaks.

John Brownstein, an assistant professor at Children’s Hospital Boston and a faculty member at Harvard Medical School, who led development of the software, says that “informal sources” of information, such as the news media and the general public, could be valuable for epidemiologists. That’s why he and colleagues developed Outbreaks Near Me, an application for the iPhone that collects and displays information about infectious diseases. Users can zoom in and out on a map to find geographically relevant information about infectious disease outbreaks. They can also submit information regarding a recent outbreak in their area.

Outbreaks Near Me is based on a website called HealthMap, which was launched last summer. The site scours the Internet for disease information in various languages, including English, Spanish, French, Russian, Chinese, and Arabic, and then organizes the data into a customizable map. Users can search for cases of swine flu in America, for example, or take a broad look at several infectious diseases in their state. “There’s all this unorganized information out there on the Internet, potentially interesting info about what is happening with infectious diseases,” Brownstein says.

“We have a lot of collaborators at World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control who use [HealthMap] daily,” Brownstein adds. “We also get great feedback from [the] general public, too, when something gets wrongly classified.”

The main difference between the two tools is that HealthMap only solicits links to Web pages with outbreak info, whereas Outbreaks Near Me provides an open channel for users on the ground to submit infectious disease information. The information could come from a nurse who just took on a patient with swine flu, or a mother who just found out two children in her daughter’s playgroup have measles. Currently, tip-offs are dealt with manually so that only valuable information appears on the map. But Brownstein hopes to automate that process. “Based on the first 600 reports we received, we’re building a training set that will at least help us automate the process of weeding out the bogus reports,” he says. “However, I think we’ll have to keep this a fairly manual approach to begin with.”

“A nice advantage of the iPhone application is you can set it up to alert you to whenever there’s an outbreak in your area,” says Clark Freifeld, a graduate student at the MIT media lab and a software developer at Children’s Hospital Boston who helped develop both HealthMap and Outbreaks Near Me with Brownstein.

The public option: Anyone can send information and pictures to the HealthMap team regarding a new outbreak. Currently, the researchers have to cull that information manually, but they hope to automate the process soon.

“It started as a side project,” Freifeld says of HealthMap. “It’s really kind of taken off in a huge way. It’s been kind of surprising.”

Funded by Google.org, Outbreaks Near Me has already been downloaded more than 1,500 times. “We’re definitely just beginning to start this process,” says Brownstein, adding that he hasn’t had a chance to go through all of the tips already submitted by users. “There were a few interesting reports about school closures and illnesses at university,” he says.

The HealthMap team is also working on versions of the software for other mobile platforms, including BlackBerry devices and those running the Google Android operating system.

A simple text-messaging system to alert those with basic mobile phones of outbreak information is also on the agenda. That could prove particularly useful in the developing world, where smartphones are not yet common and information about infectious diseases is sometimes hard to find.

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