September 1, 2009 By Blake Harris
The MIT Media Lab, in collaboration with researchers at Children's Hospital Boston, have created a new iPhone application that enables users to track and report outbreaks of infectious diseases, such as H1N1 (swine flu), on the ground in real time.
Called "Outbreaks Near Me," the new application builds upon the existing capability of HealthMap -- an online resource that collects, filters, maps and disseminates information about emerging infectious diseases. However, the iPhone software provides a new, contextualized view based on a user's specific location, pinpointing reported outbreaks in the vicinity.
As well, there is an alert function that will notify a user on their device or by e-mail when new outbreaks are reported in a specified area.
"We hope individuals will find the new app to be a useful source of outbreak information - locally, nationally, and globally," said HealthMap co-founder John Brownstein, PhD, assistant professor in the Children's Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP), in a prepared statement. "As people are equipped with more knowledge and awareness of infectious disease, the hope is that they will become more involved and proactive about public health."
Part of the innovation is that the application doesn't just rely on information provided by authorities. Users can submit their own outbreak reports through their iPhones. This enables people in cities and countries around the world to interact with the HealthMap team and participate in the public health surveillance process. Users may even take situation related photos and submit them to the HealthMap system for review and eventual posting as an alert on the worldwide map.
"This is grassroots, participatory epidemiology," added HealthMap co-founder Clark Freifeld, a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab and research software developer at CHIP. "In releasing this app we aim to empower citizens in the cause of public health, not only by providing ready access to real-time information, but also by encouraging them to contribute their own knowledge, expertise, and observations. In enabling participation in surveillance, we also expect to increase global coverage and identify outbreaks earlier."
Outbreaks Near Me was developed with support from Google.org and is available at no cost for download in the iTunes App Store. For more information on Outbreaks Near Me, visit: http://healthmap.org/iphone.php.