Despite suffering from a cold that affected his voice, John Brownstein, Ph.D, Associate Professor (at Harvard Medical School) and on faculty at Boston Children’s Hospital, joined me (@docweighsin) for a conversation about HealthMap at the mHealth Summit in Washington DC.

We talked about the work the HealthMap team had done to gather data about infectious disease occurrences from many different sources, including news feeds, blogs, social media, chatrooms, validated official reports (such as those from the CDC and WHO), and other sites. The data is used to map outbreaks of infectious disease around the world, all in one spot, the HealthMap.

In order to organize all this data from so many disparate sources, the team built a taxonomy (“a scheme of classification”) that allows them to take text, that is, what people write online, HealthMap appand organize it into meaningful information. They have developed dictionaries of both infectious diseases as well as geographic locations. The HealthMap mining algorithms look for those diseases and locations in the free text feeds they get and categorizes them. In that way, huge amounts of data can be classified so that it isn’t so overwhelming.

You can use HealthMap either online or by downloading the app. Researchers and epidemiologists can use filters to look for particular infectious disease or locations and they can view an outbreak, for example, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, over time. Consumers can use the mobile app (“Outbreaks Near Me”) to look for diseases near them or in areas they may be planning to visit.

 

Yelp as a public health tool

Yelp food poisoningThere’s a ton of digital data about health outcomes from people chatting about it on various online sites. Yelp is a good example. According to John, about 10% of Yelp restaurant reviews “actually report a poisoning of some sort.” He says that we can take that data and organize it to make it more useful to public health and others who care about infectious disease outbreaks.

But he says, the HealthMap team is also developing tools that allow people to report infectious disease directly to them. An example is Flu Near You (FNY), an online program that is administered by HealthMap of Boston Children’s Hospital in partnership with the American Public Health Association and the Skoll Global Threats Fund.

Anyone 13 years or older living in the U.S. or Canada can register to complete brief, weekly surveys that help all of us learn more about the flu.

I quickly registered on the FNY site (reporting my email address, age, gender, and zip code) and then completed a few question survey for both myself and my husband. There was a quick checklist of any flu-like symptoms that I might be having as well as yes/no questions about my current and prior year flu vaccination history. I completed everything in less than 2 minutes. Going forward, I will be emailed weekly surveys to complete and send in.

By crowdsourcing real-time information about many individuals’ flu symptoms and vaccination history, FNY can visualize and make available flu trends by zip code to public health officials, researchers, disaster planning organizations, and “anyone else who may find the information useful.” According to the FNY website, “the information on the site is available to public health officials, researchers, disaster planning organizations, and anyone else who may find this information useful.

 

Uber Health

One last project John and I chatted about was called Uber Health. It was based on the concept that convenience plays a role in whether someone does or does not get a flu shot. It takes effort to go to a clinic or pharmacy to get a shot. So HealthMap partnered with Uber, the ridesharing company, to bring flu shots to people. They did this by putting nurses in Uber cars. According to the Uber blog, you could order free flu shots via the Uber app on your phone for yourself and up to 9 friends. It was incredibly popular, says John. They actually used up all of the vaccine they had available in the four cities in which it was rolled out:  New York, Boston, DC, and Chicago.

Way to go HealthMap!

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