In Biology, Delights on April 30, 2009 at 3:38 am
For your datahead enjoyment, a user has added a layer to Google Maps that lets you track cases of swine flu as they are reported. We are still very much at the point of discovering preexisting cases of swine flu, so this will be a lagging indicator, but it’s still fun (and a little unsettling) to see how many cases of the disease have been spotted in the vicinity of Princeton.
A more utilitarian Google widget is Flu Trends, which tracks common search terms that, according to a Nature paper published by the company correlate well with actual disease levels. (These terms include searches for symptoms that are related to flu; as Google points out, you get more allergy searches during allergy season and more sunburn searches during the summer.) This can actually predict disease loads two weeks before health authorities announce new outbreaks.
Considering the hubbub about H1N1, it may surprise you that Flu Trends shows that influenza levels in the US are low and steady. In the media blitz as new cases are discovered, it’s important to keep in mind that the normal seasonal flu causes 36,000 deaths a year. While swine flu is newsworthy because of its potential to mushroom into a full-blown pandemic, in absolute numbers it is still a minor player in the disease world.
While the disease cannot be acquired by eating pork, pig farmers are naturally concerned that calling H1N1 “swine flu” will hurt sales. However, the disease did originate in pigs, recombining with avian and human flu viruses, so it is unlikely that the industry’s calls for it to be redubbed will be heeded. (“Mexican flu” was one suggestion, and I can think of at least one group that would be riled up over the name.)
Update: A remarkable new website allows you to tell whether or not you are suffering from swine flu. This represents a significant step forward for online diagnostics. Get yourself checked out here!
In Policy, Technology on February 10, 2009 at 6:25 pm
Google Australia has created a flash map of the fires currently devastating southeast Australia, with fire locations and status updates. Green areas are safe; red means fires are still in progress. These are the worst fires in Australia’s history and what’s particularly scary is that they may have been set deliberately. More than 100 are reported to have lost their lives.
Some food for thought: Googler Paula Fox was able to provide the flash map because the Victoria Fire Department supports the open standard RSS. (RSS is a standardized data format for frequently updated information, designed to be read on many kinds of programs.) But to be useful for visualization, fire data needs geographical information; there exist adaptations such as GeoRSS to do this, but the fire department didn’t have any such thing.
From technologist Elias Bizannes:
1) If you output data, output it in some standard structured format (like RSS, KML, etc).
2) If you want that data to be useful for visualisation, include both time and geographic (latitude/longitude information). Otherwise you’re hindering the public’s ability to use it.
3) Let the public use your data. The Google team spent some time to ensure they were not violating anything by using this data. Websites should be clearer about their rights of usage to enable mashers to work without fear
4) Extend the standards. It would have helped a lot of the CFA site extended their RSS with some custom elements (in their own namespace), for the structured data about the fires. Like for example Get the hell out of here.
5) Having all the Fire Department’s using the same standards would have make a world of difference – build the mashup using one method and it can be immediately useful for future uses.
Natural disaster response needs data, and good data sharing protocols. US agencies aren’t always so good at that. During Katrina, it was the volunteer database Katrinalist that helped people find survivor information. But FEMA’s models were not made available in a way that would allow first responders to act quickly. We need to work on that.