iPhone app tracks swine flu, other disease outbreaks

Outbreaks Near Me app also allows users to report locations where disease is spreading

A free iPhone app called "Outbreaks Near Me" is designed to help users track and report oubreaks of swine flu and other infectious diseases.

Researchers at Children's Hospital in Boston built the application with the MIT Media Lab and with support from Google.org, the philanthropic arm of the search engine company.

The application relies on information gathered at the HealthMap Web site.

With the app, iPhone users can get information on outbreaks of a disease in their area. They also can be notified on the device or by e-mail when new outbreaks are reported nearby or when the user enters an area where outbreaks have been reported.

There is also an option to submit an outbreak report and to add photos of situations that might have led to the spreading of a disease, according to a statement from Children's Hospital.

The application is built upon HealthMap.org, which was started in 2006 to mine the Internet for news reports, official alerts, blogs and chats about infectious disease outbreaks. The site also relies on what it calls "curated" personal accounts, according to a statement.

Clark Freifeld, who is a co-founder of HealthMap, a Ph.D candidate at the MIT Media Lab and a research software developer at Children's, called the reporting process for HealthMap and now the iPhone app, "grassroots, participatory epidemiology."

HealthMap typically receives 10,000 unique visits a day, but at the peak of the swine flu outbreak last spring, visits rose to 150,000 a day.

The application gives users, for the first time, the opportunity to submit their own information about disease outbreaks, such as school closings or overcrowding at a local hospital, Freifeld said in an interview.

"We don't know exactly what we'll get," he said. A hands-on review mechanism is also being developed to reject bogus information. The hardest part of building the app, Freifeld said, was coordinating requests from the database with a user's iPhone location based on GPS data.

The other co-founder of HealthMap, John Brownstein, an assistant professor at the Children's Hospital Informatics Program, said the app should be a source of information for users that will also help them become more involved and proactive regarding public health.

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