Anheuser-Busch Briefing Center, U.S. Chamber of Commerce
1615 H St NW, Washington, D.C.
Registration and Breakfast: 8:00 a.m.-8:30 a.m.
The Centers for Disease Control is reporting that 47 U.S. states have widespread influenza in the first week of January 2013 putting us square in epidemic levels. I noticed the effects first hand while on a weekend trip to Philadelphia, a city that has reached very high levels of the virus. Is it the effects of movies like Contagion or the 1918-19 Spanish Flu outbreak featured in Downton Abbey? Or am I just feeling that because I myself keep thinking of Contagion and Downton Abbey?
Between movies, 24/7 cable news, and our highly interactive social media networks, news of illness, as well as everything else, is pervasive in our moment-to-moment lives. In a New York Times opinion piece titled “Only You Can Prevent Digital Wildfires”, Lee Howell, managing director of the World Economic Forum, outlines the idea that a social media post could spark a panic. Harking back to the 1938 H.G. Wells “War of the Worlds” broadcast; when a tale of Aliens invading the U.S. sparked a flurry of calls to local police precincts; Howell reminds us what can happen if we only hear half the story.
But how does social and digital media help prevent panic? Tracking social media posts is proving to be a worthwhile way of following the path of disease.
Google has brought flu tracking into the 21st century with their Flu Trends map. By culling data from their search engine, they are able to accurately track the path of the illness. The scale ranges from green to red, with the eastern half of the US currently entirely dark red, and things getting a little more orange when you move towards California. Which is quite representative of the current status of the flu. Google’s flu project was even published in the academic journal Nature.
It doesn’t stop with Google search queries. Baltimore-based Sickweather has developed maps using Tweets and Facebook status updates of people complaining commenting about feeling sick. Their stated mission:
“Just as Doppler radar scans the skies for indicators of bad weather, Sickweather scans social networks for indicators of illness, allowing you to check for the chance of sickness as easily as you can check for the chance of rain.”
Sickweather’s goal: predict outbreaks and track the path of disease. So far, it looks like they’ve been successful. Sickweather predicted the flu outbreak 6 weeks before the CDC.
So can technology prevent the flu? Not completely, but it can assist in the planning and preparation of vaccines and facilities to better help those who end up under the weather.
Excuse me while I go wash my hands.