Flu Forecasting App Helps Your Boss, Marketers Plan Ahead - InformationWeek
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Flu Forecasting App Helps Your Boss, Marketers Plan Ahead

Sickweather has released a disease forecast API to developers. The potential market for such information includes healthcare professionals, employers, and even the advertising industry.

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Sickweather, a disease surveillance company based in Baltimore, has made its illness data available to developers so they can create apps that present disease forecasts and outbreak maps. The company's Sickweather mobile app is already available for iTunes and Android users, touting itself as a Doppler radar for sickness.

In a phone interview, CEO Graham Dodge suggested that disease forecasts could become common conversational fodder alongside weather forecasts, thanks to social media, the source of the company's illness data. Already, AccuWeather has incorporated disease forecasts into its StoryTeller content platform. Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson and thermometer-maker Swaive are using the company's data in their respective mobile apps.

Through Sickweather's API, developers can fetch JSON-formatted data about illness reports at specific map coordinates, disease forecasts for a given area, and contagion threat level scores for leading sources of illness. The API can also receive illness reports from developers' apps.

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Sickweather's primary source of disease information, however, comes from machine analysis of social media posts to detect personal declarations of illness.

(Image: Sickweather)

(Image: Sickweather)

Crowdsourced weather reports work well in conjunction with meteorological science. But crowdsourced epidemiology has proven to be problematic for medical science.

In 2008, Google launched Flu Tracker based on the notion that search queries about the flu could be correlated with actual flu infections. There's some truth to that, but not enough to reflect outbreak data with the accuracy demanded by medical professionals.

During the 2012-2013 flu season, Google's models overestimated the number of flu cases in the US by more than six percentage points. Google subsequently retired Flu Tracker, though researchers from Harvard and Boston Children's Hospital have since improved on Google's model with a system called ARGO (AutoRegression with GOogle search data).

Dodge said Sickweather's approach differs from Google Flu Tracker. "The main difference between what we're doing and what Google was doing is the difference between implicit data and explicit data."

In other words, where Google's model inferred flu infection from search activity, Sickweather's model focuses on detecting personal declarations of illness from social media posts, and from illness self-reported through apps.

Asked about the merits of crowdsourced disease data, the Centers for Diseases Control did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dodge, however, insisted that Sickweather's data has real epidemiological value. "In our own flu forecasting testing, we were able to achieve 91% accuracy in forecasting flu activity," he said. He said that Sickweather has been invited to participate in the CDC's Epidemic Prediction Initiative, and plans to do so.

Dodge also described how the service's data can help with medical outcomes. "In terms of use cases, we had one mom who thanked us because Sickweather's alerts for strep made her think to get her son [who was sick] tested for strep," he said, noting that the child was prescribed antibiotics as a result of the diagnosis.

Marketers appear to be another target for Sickweather's disease forecasts. As Dodge explained in a blog post, being able to forecast illness at least eight weeks in advance allows advertisers to "know when and where to advertise products and services related to the illnesses that we are tracking (e.g. a cough product in a city where people are coughing)."

Sickweather is also offering its data to HR groups in enterprises. The company's Sickweather Pro analytics dashboard provides HR directors with data about the risk of absenteeism and "presenteeism." The latter describes a phenomenon in which "people show up to work sick but aren't productive," Dodge explained.

"Illness forecasts will be a lot more ubiquitous in coming years," said Dodge.

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Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful ... View Full Bio

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User Rank: Ninja
2/9/2016 | 9:36:07 AM
Re: Now what?
@Li Tan: Even for people who don't care about viral disease risk for themselves, they do care about the same for their kids. So I guess it's accuracy and appeal is only going to increase with time.
Li Tan
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
2/2/2016 | 2:17:40 AM
Re: Now what?
I have the same concern here - except giving an interesting hostagram about flu distribution, how much real value we can get from it? Everybody knows the flu season and some people will go for vaccination while others just don't care.
User Rank: Ninja
2/1/2016 | 5:14:36 PM
Re: Now what?
@Broadway - Ha!  I love your bluntness.  It reminds me of "the Bobs" interviewing Tom: "What would you say...you do here?"  From an HR persepective, I can see it now: "Johnny I know you called in sick but I don't see it posted on your fb/twitter/IG."  lol.  I understand this involves aggregate numbers but couldn't you just see this as a natural progression?
User Rank: Ninja
2/1/2016 | 3:47:49 PM
Re: Now what?
This is an interesting concept. It makes me wonder whether we'll someday be checking sickness forecasts like we do the weather. I think there is probably some really good applications for this as push notifications. It could really help prevent the spread of illnesses. 
User Rank: Ninja
1/31/2016 | 10:31:43 PM
Add to the list
This forecasting app seems like it could be beneficial for oragnizations. They could find reason to incorporate telework strategies for highly contagious patients who are well enough to work but not work around others. 
User Rank: Ninja
1/31/2016 | 3:22:21 PM
Now what?
This is really interesting stuff, but I'd love to know exactly what people are supposed to do with it besides talk about it. I can understand what advertisers will do with this. Pester us with ads for zinc and other flu remedies. But what will Hr people do with it? That'll be the real interesting thing because right now they do nothing and everyone knows when flu season is.
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