Healthy Big Data: Stopping the Spread of Flu


In the midst of one of the worst flu epidemics on record, one which has seen authorities in both New York and Boston declare health emergencies, health officials and app developers alike are turning to big data in an attempt to stop things from getting out of control.

Big Data for Doctors

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is the primary organization tasked with nipping this flu epidemic in the bud, and to do so its scientists are utilizing a proactive approach that involves amassing tons of data on the disease so they can better understand what they’re dealing with.

Doctor’s primary weapon remains the flu vaccine, but one of the problems is that there isn’t enough of this to go round for everyone to get a preventative jab. Moreover, doctors have to consider that there are numerous strains of influenza, which need to be identified before they can concoct a vaccine that will be effective against this year’s strain.

See the entire Healthy Big Data Series on Pinterest and Springpad!


To do so, the CDC relies on the nation’s massive network of labs, hospitals and doctors to send it vast amounts of data to the current state of the flu epidemic around the country. It receives more than 700,000 flu reports each week, together with data from other organizations like the World Health Organization, using this treasure trove of information to create its FLuView tracking tool, which supplies Google’s own flu tracker with its data.

FLuView crunches and organizes the data it receives to present doctors with a clear picture of how the disease is spreading on the ground in something close to real time. Moreover, it gives doctors the answers they need to effectively combat the outbreak, such as knowing which flu strains to include in its vaccine, and whether or not anti-viral drugs will be effective in treating the strain responsible for the current outbreak (good news, they are for this year’s).

The CDC’s FluView tracker helps health workers fight the epidemic

Lynetter Brammer, a flu epidemiologist at the CDC, explained to BusinessInsider how scientists are using the data to fight the current outbreak:

“We learn where flu is and in what relative proportion [to the general population], what age groups are getting flu. We do what’s called “antigenic characterization” [of flu strains that made people sick] to see how close they look to the strains used in the vaccine. We do anti-viral resistance testing to make sure the strains are still sensitive to the drugs for flu and we do genetic sequencing on some of them,” she explains.

“We get rates of hospitalizations from lab-confirmed flu to see how much severe disease there is. We have another system that tracks pneumonia and influenza deaths so we can see on the whole population if flu activity is causing more deaths than you would expect for this time of year.”

Unfortunately, Brammer explains that doctors will never be able to completely eliminate flu, even with the assistance of big data. Instead, the best that they can hope to achieve is to curtail the epidemic in the soonest possible time:

“Our hope is to make better vaccines to reduce the impact of flu and to reduce hospital visits and deaths due to flu,” she adds.

Big Data for Patients

It’s not just the doctors who can be proactive in the battle against flu. Thanks to a bunch of innovative new ‘flu apps’ designed to capture data on the epidemic, we can all take steps to reduce our chances of falling ill this winter.

One of the noblest of these is FluNearYou, a public safety project launched by the Skoll Global Threats Fund and the American Public Health Association that encourages people to report their flu-like symptoms as soon as they fall ill. The site doesn’t actually do much more than provide a map of flu activity, but project designers stress that data sharing is important if we are ever to be able to predict and prepare ourselves for future pandemics.


Germ Tracker, as the name suggests, is a tool that allows people to track cases of flu in their own area. It sounds a lot like Google’s own tracking tool, but the big difference with this app is that it takes its data exclusively from social media, which means that it has access to thousands of cases that go unreported to doctors. The downside to this is that its results may be slightly skewed if you happen to have more than your fair share of hypochondriacs in your area, but at least its alarming reports may scare a few more people into getting a flu shot.

Finally, for those who are already sick, it’s always nice to have someone to blame – in which case, Help, I Have the Flu might just appeal to you. Designed by the pharmaceutical company Help Remedies, the app seeks to identify the person responsible for passing the flu onto you by scanning all of your friend’s status updates over the past week, looking for any references to “flu”, “sneezes” or “coughs”. It then reports which of your friends have had these symptoms over the past week, allowing you to narrow down your list of suspects.