I’m sick. You’re sick. We all seem sick. ‘Tis the season for coughing earthquakes, aches, malaise, and stopping runny noses by shoving tissues in the nostrils. (That’s my technique, by the way, and you are free to adopt it.)
Perhaps my coughing fits explain why a new Baltimore start-up caught my eye this week. It’s called Sickweather, and the easiest way to explain what it does is this: think weather map.
It’s a nifty concept, I think, and it’s part of a wave of development among computerites and hackers to use the Internet to spot outbreaks of illness. Google, for instance, is helping public health experts track flu outbreaks by monitoring increases in certain search terms. The influential journal Nature even published a paper on the topic, saying the method worked.
Sickweather, which currently employes five people, has algorithms that can learn from people’s public posts to social networks whether they are sick and where they are. Little blue clouds that say “Sick” then show up on a map. Zoom out and you can see whole regions where outbreaks might be occurring.
The other way Sickweather learns who is sick is by asking you how you feel if you are registered at Sickweather.com. Graham Dodge, the co-founder, told me that Sickweather hopes to make money by then serving you targeted ads for products that might help you feel better.
This morning, I logged in and the site asked me, “Michael, how are you feeling today?”
Out loud, I said, “lousy,” but then realized my laptop couldn’t hear me. So I pulled down a drop-down menu with a list of symptoms and maladies: pink eye, headache, hay fever, foot and mouth, fever, flu, ear infection, etc. I chose cough. Then the site plotted a little blue cloud on a map right near my house.
The site then told me, “General sickness, depression and cough are going around Germantown, Md.,” where I live.
I can vouch for the cough. So can my wife.