Could Facebook Warn You Before You Get the Flu?

As someone who avoids her flu shot each year like (*wince*) the plague, the recent trend of online social health networks like Sickweather or Google Flu Trends, and their reliance on tweets and Facebook posts to gauge the start of flu season, may be one worth following. Of course, the virtual dissemination of the wheres and whens people are getting sick doesn’t actually treat any illnesses, but it’s a safe assumption that preemptive knowledge can mitigate the chances of contracting them.

How do these sites track the flu? By collecting relevant updates and statuses listed on Facebook and Twitter around the globe. Suddenly your over-informative former classmate’s incessant posts about her toddler’s bronchitis may not induce as many eye rolls. One caveat — profiles must be public, and local information provided, for Sickweather to plug data into their ‘patent-pending’ algorithm, which, considering the amount of social media users who retain private domains, minimizes the accuracy of these flu reports. Sickweather members also have the option to post directly (and anonymously) to the site’s “How Are You Feeling Today” input field. If you and others in proximity log similar symptoms, Sickweather is able to group the data and report trending activity. As with other types of research and data collection, these reports may only be effective if an appropriate number of participants are involved. Without being a member and merely entering my zip code into the Sickweather Map, I learned that headache, depression, and common cold were going around in my neighborhood. Earth shattering news for New York in January? Not quite.

Google Flu Trends, which debuted in 2008, is more analytic in its reporting, using anonymized, "aggregated Google search data to estimate current flu activity around the world in real time." In other words, someone doesn’t feel well, so they turn to the web and Google terms like “flu symptoms” or “fever.” The search engine giant is then able to input these queries into a chart, and monitor their fluctuations. One advantage Google Flu Trends and other online health networks have over traditional flu-monitoring agencies like the Center for Disease Control is the immediacy and geographic comprehension of their updates. The CDC will provide more in-depth reports, but data is usually generated one region at a time, and on a weekly basis.

So, can Facebook really warn you before you get the flu? If you’re trolling your newsfeed for neighbor/colleague/family status updates on their health, then yes. But whether this data collection is profoundly more helpful than taking traditional precautionary measures against the flu, like say, washing your hands or keeping a general eye on the news, is still up for debate.