Monique Keiran: New apps help virus information go viral

This week, the Weather Network’s Flu Report shows significant numbers of influenza cases in the Lower Mainland. Google Flu Trends provides less detail — it rates all of B.C. as having high flu activity.

Google Flu Trends tallies Google searches for information about influenza-like illness to estimate real-time flu activity around the world. When compared to results from traditional flu-surveillance systems, Google’s estimates match on-the-ground illness patterns. But unlike traditional reports, Google updates Flu Trends daily.

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The launch of Flu Trends in 2008 launched an even greater trend in health research. Google may have led the way, but new methods for tracking health indicators and mining the Internet for health-related social information seem to come online each year.

Assisting the movement is the fact that infectious illnesses such as flu are themselves social phenomena. They spread via interactions between people.

Because of this, researchers see Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and other media as ideal systems with which to track illness across populations. The scientists use the search engines’ and media’s own countless digital interactions to simulate in-person encounters.

For instance, an unusually high spike in tweets and Facebook messages mentioning flu-like symptoms prompted a U.S.-based keyword miner to pre-empt the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s warning about this year’s early flu season by almost seven weeks. Sickweather declared its flu-season prognosis — via Twitter, naturally — on Oct. 18. The CDC released its announcement on Dec 3.

Sickweather tracks about 20 symptoms and illnesses across public Facebook and Twitter updates that are geographically tagged. This allows the company to map illness by tweet and post location.

An application developed in Brazil last year uses Twitter to track dengue-fever outbreaks across that country in a similar way. When they tested the system, developers found the times and places from which people tweet that they have dengue closely correlate with official statistics for where the disease appears each season.

And then there are the research projects that use social media to simulate disease infection and spread. These remind us why computer viruses are called viruses.

Users can actively contribute to science by adding, for example, the PiggyDemic app to their Facebook accounts. Once loaded, PiggyDemic deems users “susceptible,” “immune” or “infected” with various simulated viruses, and transmits these fake — and harmless — bugs to users’ online contacts. The researchers use network-visualization software to follow the interactions and monitor the links between users as the so-called “viruses” are passed from user to user.

The resulting patterns model how real — that is, microbial — viruses mutate in the real world, spread through human interaction and cause epidemics.

PiggyDemic relies on the public to participate in the research by downloading and releasing the app.

Greater degree of participation is required for the Health Tracking Network, run out of Seattle’s University of Washington. Anyone with computer access can register anonymously with the network, provide basic health and fitness information and report on those same metrics weekly. The network compiles the information to identify and follow trends in a variety of health-related issues and areas.

The benefit of this system to the citizen-scientist user is believed to be that when a person actively and regularly reports physical activity, blood pressure or blood-sugar levels, she remains committed to health and fitness goals for longer and tends to lose more weight, eat better and exercise more, for longer.

Active tracking and reporting apparently brings a kind of personal and public accountability into play. This helps sustain motivation.

It’s also the psychology behind programs like Weight Watchers. It also applies to more than 17,500 health and fitness apps available for download to your smartphone.

Yes, yours. Today. While you remain enthusiastic about your New Year’s resolutions.

I confess: I signed up for a Health Tracking Network account a while back. I promptly forgot my password.

Ditto, MapMyFitness, an app for my phone.

This suggests another possible health-research app: one that tracks failure to remember online passwords.

If enough people sign up and then forget, it might provide useful scientific information on memory and loss — or lack — thereof.

Now where did I put my phone?

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