Early Flu Season Found Lurking in Social Data
A small start-up called Sickweather says public tweets and Facebook messages helped it declare an early start to this year’s U.S. flu season, six weeks before the CDC.
Baltimore-based Sickweather tweeted about the early flu season on Oct. 18; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that the flu season was getting off to its earliest start in a decade on Dec. 3.
Sickweather co-founder Graham Dodge said social media reports of the flu spiked 77 percent between August and October. A ramp-up to flu season is normal in that time period, but this seems to have been up about 30 percent from the year prior.
People who are actually worried about the flu probably don’t want to rely on Sickweather predictions, given the site simply tweeted about the spike, “Oh, hello #Flu, you’re a little early this year: sick.io/ksxfm,” among a normal stream of banter and self-promotion.
Besides, the CDC said that as of December a third of Americans had already been vaccinated.
But the notion of Sickweather is still interesting. Social media sickness mentions are one of a few signals that can be measured to try to understand how sickness moves in real time.
Google famously tracks volume of Web searches for flu-related terms through its Google Flu Trends tool, which is used in all sorts of research and visualizations, but doesn’t make explicit judgment calls about flu season. WebMD also updates a cold and flu symptom map based on user activity.
Sickweather, which Dodge currently works on as a side project, previously said it had detected two whooping cough outbreaks last year.