Serious iPhone app addicts who've used the tools to find everything from the closest Starbucks to the nearest empty cab can now add another search epidemiologists hope will put public health in your pocket. Researchers at Children's Hospital Boston and the MIT Media Lab now want to help you also pinpoint the nearest person with swine flu.
Their application, "Outbreaks Near Me," draws from the HealthMap online project, which synthesizes maps, news reports, official alerts and blogs from across the Web to track infectious diseases. The application's creators hope to empower individual users — HealthMap suggests they think of themselves as "disease detectives" — to access the kind of comprehensive information that's typically available to public health officials but also to contribute to it themselves.
Users who will now have portable access to HealthMap can submit an outbreak report themselves, complete with a relevant iPhone photo (a picture of someone looking sick on Fourth Avenue perhaps?). The app can also be used to automatically alert users of an outbreak report in the neighborhood. Such tools would benefit both the germophobic iPhone owner but also the public health officials who, through greater public participation and surveillance, could identify outbreaks sooner.
"This is grassroots, participatory epidemiology," said Clark Freifeld, an MIT Ph.D. student and HealthMap co-founder, in announcing the new app.
Developed in part with the backing of Google.org, the search engine's philanthropic arm, Outbreaks Near Me is available for free download.
The HealthMap.org Web site currently tracks diseases from Dengue fever (125 reports in the last 30 days) to rabies (42 reports) across the globe, drawing about 10,000 visitors a day. But as summer turns to fall flu season and H1N1 returns to the headlines, a good real-time swine flu tracking device may come in handy. When the disease was first identified in the spring, as many as 150,000 people a day were on HealthMap trying to figure out who had it where.