If you thought social networks and search engines were only for tweeting buddies and finding product suppliers anywhere in the world . . . guess again. The fact that people search for medical information online, and blog or Twitter about their flu symptoms even before they see a doctor, is now the latest way to track the spread of epidemics. Like H1N1, or swine flu.
Those lab workers at Shanghai Institute of Biological Products in China are developing possible vaccines that may protect people from the swine flu virus. But, before vaccines can be administered to the right people, the pandemic bug must be tracked down. Just like forecasting extreme weather.
Enter: Internet Detectives
Here’s where Internet Flu Watcher Programs come in, including Google’s Public Flu Trends System (see below), HealthMap’s automated hourly web crawler that searches for flu information in seven languages, and Maryland’s Resident Influenza Tracking Survey fed with voluntary weekly health reports sent over the Internet.
Some flu detectives are even keeping an eye on cell phones as a way of building those charts that show with whom, exactly, a flu carrier has been in contact.
Psssssst! You’re not paranoid. Your electronic devices ARE watching you!
FluLog proposes using Bluetooth (radio frequency) technology as a kind of Match.com for cell phones. Say you’re in a meeting room and you’re carrying one of two Bluetooth-enabled cell phones that discover each other. Then the presence of you and the other phone owner is logged into a secure central database. Should you -– or your cell phone’s friend — show up with swine flu symptoms, then public health officials can figure out from meeting data turned over by the phones which people are potentially at risk of exposure. Or, so says Mehul Motani from the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Engineering.
You saw it here, first, at Top Ten Wholesale.
Sorry to gloat. But we told you about an amazing use of search engine technology in Google’s Public Flu Trends system last November 2008. See Search Technology Powerful Enough to Track Bugs from Top Ten Wholesale Blog.
Here’s one of Google’s plots of “sick” and “flu” search queries that was showing the location and spread of influenza outbreaks . . . long before Centers for Disease Control could compile information from state health officials.
All this is part of “infodemiology” -– a cross between the research disciplines of Informatics (Information Technology & Computers) and Epidemiology (Medical Spread of Disease through Populations). Except that, now, search engines and social media enable a far more active approach to managing disease outbreaks.
As Alessandro Vespignani, professor of informatics at Indiana University, said:
It’s not just . . . a passive approach, where we just wait for the disease and then try to do something.
It’s like doing weather forecasts in which you try to get all the initial conditions, and then you run your numerical models on the computer to try to anticipate what will be the evolution.
If we’re talking about that swiney H1N1, I say: Search, Blog, Tweet, Social Network and Track Away!