CEDAR RAPIDS — With flu season approaching, public health officials hope a crowdsourcing app that tracks flu activity will gain additional traction.
Flu Near You, a disease detection app, helps predict outbreaks of the flu in real time. Users self-report symptoms in a weekly survey, which the app then analyzes and maps to show where pockets of influenza-like illness are located.
HealthMap, Boston Children’s Hospital, the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association developed the app, which was launched in November 2011. It now has more than 120,000 subscribers.
“It engages the public directly,” said Jennifer Olsen, manager of pandemics for the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a San Francisco-based non-governmental organization that works to confront dangers around the world.
Each year, the flu is responsible for about 200,000 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There were a total of 31.8 million influenza-associated illnesses, 14.4 million medically attended illnesses and 381,000 hospitalizations during the 2012-2013 flu season.
“(The app) puts the public back into public health,” said Dr. Florence Bourgeois, a specialist in pediatric emergency medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.
Bourgeois said the survey takes about a minute to complete. It asks six questions about various symptoms, then graphs and maps the information to provide local and national views.
Users can also search through previous weeks’ data and narrow searches by ZIP code to get a better idea of activity in their area, or in areas they may be visiting
Although users have to first sign up to receive the survey and then fill it out each week, Olsen said the data collected reflect CDC data.
“So far, there seems to be a pretty high correlation,” she said.
Vast amounts of data shared through social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are making crowdsourcing an effective public health tool.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Department of Public Health began using Twitter to identify cases of foodborne outbreaks. The health department teamed up with a group called Smart Chicago to develop an app that analyzes Chicago tweets that reference food poisoning.
And Google now maps flu trends by aggregating search data of certain terms to estimate flu activity.
Bourgeois said this approach allows for greater data collection and is not limited to specific geographic areas.
“Not everyone goes to the doctor when they feel sick,” Olsen added. “Sometimes people will Google their symptoms, or take medicine and stay home. This gives us more ways to engage more broadly.”
The groups would like the tool to eventually evaluate more respiratory illnesses so it is able to identify severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Enterovirus D68, the illness hitting children in Midwestern and Southern states.
“We haven’t explored that yet, but it could be useful,” Olsen said.