Tracking the flu -- there's an app for that!

While millions of Americans are doing what they can to avoid winter flu, a local group is asking for their help to track it.
December 11, 2013 12:00:00 AM PST
While millions of Americans are doing what they can to avoid winter flu, a group here in the Bay Area is asking for your help to track the virus, and perhaps provide a powerful new way to avoid it.

From his office in San Francisco, Dr. Mark Smolinski monitors an online flu-tracking center on his computer screen. The colorful map is part of that system called "Flu Near You." It's a crowd sourced system, driven by an expanding army of volunteers and their Internet devices.

"We want the public to volunteer this information as a global good, and then we're providing this data to help answer some of these questions of science, but also to help public health authorities," Smolinski explains.

Each week, users receive an email that asks them to submit a flu report. With a push of a button they can report any symptoms or not. In exchange for providing their information, users can monitor flu activity in their area, and even receive customized alerts as new cases are being reported.

To move the system forward Smolinski's group is partnering with organizations like the University of San Francisco.

"Flu is something that is really very serious, something that we can track and we know how to prevent. So I think it's a really good way for us to try to use 21st century technology," says Dean of the School of Nursing Judy Karshmer.

A few miles away at the Jewish Community Center, directors believe they may be able to use the flu alerts to help schedule events and exercise classes, protecting members when flu risk is high.

"The populations that we have at the JCC ranges every single day from preschoolers all the way up to seniors," says director Barry Finestone. "We're dealing with a significant amount of vulnerable populations."

Smolinski says the system also displays parallel data from other sources such as Google Flu Trends and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"You can click on the CDC system which is actually monitoring sick people who come into the doctor and get tested for flu," he says.

The Flu Near You system is a joint creation of the Healthmaps project at Boston's Children's Hospital and the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a non-profit based in San Francisco. Organizers believe the model could someday be expanded around the world to track outbreaks of other serious diseases.

"The more we can learn about this annual threat of influenza, the more we can take that information and think about how to prepare for a potential next SARS or some other virus that might be evolved and spread the same way the flu does," Dr. Smolinski says.

Answering the Flu Near You survey takes just a few seconds, and registering for the service is free at: flunearyou.org

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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