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Tracking the Flu Outbreak With the Crowd’s Help
© Image: esri.com
editorial

Tracking the Flu Outbreak With the Crowd’s Help

The flu reached epidemic levels this season, with 48 states (all but Hawaii and Tennessee) seeing widespread activity.

While the outbreak is finally showing signs of abating, in situations like this it’s always best to stay informed about how bad the flu is in your area. How contagious is your neighborhood? Should you be avoiding the public at all costs, or is it safe to venture out to the grocery store? Those are the sorts of questions the crowdsourced flu tracking tools below are looking to answer.

Health Information Map

Esri’s Health Information Map takes reports from social media sites (specifically, Flickr, YouTube, and Twitter) and combines them with Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) information. The result is a fairly straightforward map (pictured above) that has the best of both worlds: official information and submissions from the crowd. The tweets on the map are mostly from people expressing displeasure with their symptoms. A few users, however, are offering sage advice on how to get over the sickness. “First sign of a sore throat during flu season: vodka shot chased with a spoonful of honey,” writes one user in the New York City area.

Flu Trends

Google’s Flu Trends is fairly straightforward – it estimates the number of flu cases by looking at how many people are searching for flu-related terms. Users can filter by locations (country, state, or city), and compare data from last six years. According to Flu Trends, more people are searching for flu-related terms this year than in any other in recent years – even more than during the Swine flu outbreak of 2009. Google is boasting a great track record in estimating how many cases of flu there are, as you can see on the chart below.

FluNearYou

FluNearYou, a project administered by HealthMap, takes a more hands-on approach than its competitors. The site asks users to register on the site and sends out a weekly survey asking whether individuals are coming down with the illness. Responses show up on a map: blue pins signify no symptoms, yellow pins mean some symptoms were reported, and red pins show that at least one person in the area has a flu-like illness. Anyone over 13 can participate, and the data is kept open for everyone who may find it useful.

SickWeather

SickWeather uses a combination of social media reports and user submissions to come up with its map. Using a patent-pending algorithm, the SickWeather weeds out irrelevant tweets and pins the important ones onto a map. Instead of showing individual pins or reports, the site shades in areas where activity is especially high, putting polygons and lines across a region (though if people zoom in close enough on a specific area, they can see individual reports). Those who wish to contribute but don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, or keep those outlets private, can also log on to the site and submit information by hand.

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