As the weather cools down, Americans brace for flu season. Although it typically runs from December to February, the flu can strike as early as October, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
To combat the spread and help you learn whether you’re at risk, Flu Near You is an app that tracks nearby outbreaks in real time. Launched in 2011, the app was developed by Boston Children’s Hospital, HealthMap, the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a San Francisco-based group that works on dangers such as climate change and pandemics.
The app relies on a weekly survey, in which users self-report symptoms to help map out where a potential flu groundswell is located. With around 120,000 users, the survey asks six questions about symptoms that takes only a minute to complete, according to Dr. Florence Bourgeois, a pediatric emergency medicine specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.
The app then analyzes information to provide a local and national lens on the spread of influenza-like symptoms. Users can search by zip code for outbreaks in their area, as well as search through data from weeks prior.
The flu sends around 200,000 people to the hospital each year; in total, there were around 31.8 million flu-associated illnesses and 14.4 million medically attended illnesses during the 2012 to 2013 season, according to the CDC.
“It engages the public directly,” says Jennifer Olsen, manager of pandemics for the Skoll Global Threats Fund. “Not everyone goes to the doctor when they feel sick. Sometimes people will Google their symptoms, or take medicine and stay home. This gives us more ways to engage more broadly.”
Indeed, Flu Near You is one of many tools tapping social media and the Internet to track flu outbreaks. Google currently monitors geographic spread of the flu by aggregating data based on search terms, while the Chicago Department of Public Health uses Twitter and Yelp reviews to discern cases of food poisoning outbreaks.
The team is aiming to develop the app beyond flu tracking, with the goal to use it to identify severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) as well as the virus affecting Midwestern and Southern children called Enterovirus D68.