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Cloudy with a Chance of the Flu: App Shows What’s Contagious in Cities

10 Feb, 2016

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Sports Planners, Particularly Those Traveling with Youth Teams, Can Find Out What’s Ahead Before Journeying In

Forecast: cloudy and cool, with a 50 percent chance of the common cold.

A new app that works as an illness map, showing which contagious diseases are prevalent in various cities, is taking smartphones by storm – and it might just be the most useful new gadget in the toolbox of the sports planner who works on youth events (or any event where large crowds will be present.)

Sickweather scans social media for reports of illness. As the app’s developers explain,

“Every day, thousands of people around the globe update social media sites like Facebook and Twitter when they (or someone close to them) get sick. 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 capitalizes on social media users’ propensity to share (and sometimes overshare) information about their lives and those of their families. And often, posts include something like “Ugh, I have the flu” or “Everyone in our house is down with the stomach virus.”

When this information is made publicly available by the user and contains location information, Sickweather is able to track and map the data using its algorithm. Information appears on a map with pinpoints indicating reports of illness, which expand when tapped to show the symptoms being reported. The app also contains a feature allowing users to self-report directly to the map and forecast anonymously via the mobile app and website. (And, notes the app developer, if symptoms being reported aren’t currently covered, they will be entered into suggestions for consideration when parameters are expanded.) In addition, when several similar reports appear near one another at approximately the same time, they are grouped as what the developers note as “potential storm activity represented by the heat mapping.” Zooming in on the map allows the user to see individual reports down to the street level.

It may not be the most scientific method, but it’s still effective. As an article in MediaPost noted, one of the main challenges in scientifically tracking the spread of contagious illness is that takes at least two weeks to collect data from hospitals, clinics and public health agencies. Social media postings, by contrast, offer a real-time glimpse into the health landscape of a city.

Which brings us back to the traveler who is heading there. Sports event planners can share information with team members and parents, informing them, for example, that a large number of cases of the flu are being reported in their destination, and encouraging everyone to make sure they’ve had their annual flu shot. If the team is traveling with athletic trainers or other para-health personnel, information can be shared with that person. Travelers can also be encouraged to bring items such as hand sanitizer and so forth, to lessen the possibility of spreading infections.

Of course, the business model is by no means perfect: not everything posted on social media is true or accurate, after all. But Sickweather app developers, who are based in Baltimore, say they work with advisors from Johns Hopkins University and their own team of epidemiologists to ensure that the trends correlate to available clinical data.

While it’s unlikely that a planner will be cancelling a tournament because an area reports a number of cases of something like the stomach virus, having advance knowledge of what’s going around in a given city could have more serious reverberations. In late 2014, when a mumps outbreak was reported in the NHL and a few months later, when a measles outbreak in a number of states was traced back to an exposure in Disneyland, it stirred the always simmering debate about parents who resisted having their children inoculated. If similar outbreaks are reported, and make their way to social media and then onto the Sickweather radar, it could lead to event owners laying down policies regarding whether or not unvaccinated players can travel with the team. The advent of the Zika virus has raised additional red flags, particularly as cases continue to be reported in the United States.

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