Enter the maze

Catch it, bin(ary) it, kill it

a teenager in bed with the flu

Today it seems that nasty diseases abound, from bird flu to swine flu to the common cold. Doctors the world over are always looking for new tools to help them understand how these wide-scale outbreaks happen, where they come from, how they expand and how they eventually fade away. Computer technologies are starting to provide ways to track these outbreaks using things we already take for granted, like the mobile phone and the search engine.

Signals, sniffs and snuffles: the spread of FluPhone

The fact that almost everyone carries a mobile phone can help the science of epidemiology, the study of the spread of nasty diseases through the community. Researchers in the UK and Japan asked people to upload a small program to their mobile phones. Once the phone app was uploaded they went about their normal business, while the software on their phones recorded the number of Bluetooth mobile devices around them, wherever they went. The app also let people report if they felt ill with any flu-like symptoms. All this data was then sent back to the researchers.

Using this information the research teams were able to uncover really useful patterns showing the typical numbers of people we encounter in our daily lives. In addition the information from people with flu-like symptoms allowed the teams to better understand how our daily social encounters and our travel can spread infections.

Searching for that snuffle

As large-scale outbreaks of diseases in the population, known as pandemics, occur, it is critical to know where the nasty bugs and viruses are. In the past doctors and hospitals reported cases to a central office, where this information was pulled together from all over the country. This information was used to create a map showing the spread of the disease and areas where treatment and medicines were needed. The only problem was that the map was often out of date. Google recently found a way to keep the map current, though, thanks to the fact that many people who are coming down with a nasty disease turn to the web for help checking their symptoms before going to see a doctor.

Google, the search engine giant, have developed a special system called ‘Google Flu Trends’ that examines the queries that people type in, to see if they contain flu-related terms. This clever technique is called natural language processing. The computer is taught to read and understand what we write. So as an outbreak occurs in a particular area, the computer program immediately picks up the increase in queries like ‘headache’, ‘high temperature’, and ‘shivering’ as the folk who are poorly look for information on their symptoms.

Google Flu Trends can then display the increasing or decreasing flu activity in different areas around the world. The system is still under trial, but it’s looking good. In the USA it has been able to correctly predict the spread of the flu one to two weeks before other systems which rely on doctor and hospital reports.

As computer technology develops and spreads in the future, it can give us new tools to help fight pandemics. It may be that part of the answer might already be in our pockets: that mobile phone, next to a sensible pack of tissues.