Mobile app tracks flu outbreaks on campus

As much as 20 percent of U.S. residents get the flu every year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Mobile device usage on campuses could help doctors better understand flu outbreaks.

The problem is even worse in the packed, close-knit environment that is a college campus, where one in every four students a year gets the flu.

Traditionally, campus health officials and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention have tracked flu outbreaks by monitoring the number of people being treated for the disease.

This year, students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison can help researchers track flu outbreaks without even sacrificing any of their bed rest.

Using a free app called “Out Smart Flu,” participating students are asked a few questions about their health. The answers that students provide, and the symptoms those answers indicate, will help recognize flu activity, crowd-sourcing  the tracking of flu on campus in real time.

Or at least that’s the hope, said Ajay Sethi, an associate professor of population health sciences at Wisconsin.

“The idea is that if we can detect flu earlier on campus and make that information available to everyone, then presumably people can become aware of when they should be washing their hands a little longer, getting extra rest, avoiding crowded place, making an extra effort to get flu shot,” Sethi said.

See Page 2 to learn how mobile apps and search engines could track flu outbreaks better than humans.

The experiment, which kicked off September 30, was partly inspired by Google Flu Trends, an initiative by Google that postulates that search terms are good indicators of flu activity. The idea is that people are usually more likely to type their symptoms into a search engine before forcing themselves to go to a doctor.

An uptick in search terms that are also flu symptoms can indicate an uptick in the flu. The system isn’t perfect, but it has impressed some scientists with its accuracy and speed – in 2010, it was able to identify outbreaks two weeks before the CDC.

“Out Smart Flu” asks students to simply input that same kind of information into its app, which is available for both iOS and Android.

In order for the experiment to work, word of the app will have to spread around campus in a way similar to the disease it is monitoring. Sethi said the university hopes to get 6,000 people using the app on campus.

There’s a $500 raffle to help incentivize students to use the app, but Sethi said he’s hoping the experiment’s volunteers will be motivated by something else.

“There’s hopefully a sense of altruism we can instill in the users, that they’re helping out everyone on campus,” he said. “And a sense of pride that we’re the only university trying this.”

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