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Crowd-Sourcing Surveillance of a Campus Influenza Epidemic

Madison, Wisconsin - This fall, students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison can participate in a huge crowd-sourcing experiment to see if a smartphone app can track influenza outbreaks quicker than conventional methods.


“It's a grassroots effort to create real-time data about flu on our campus.”

- Ajay Sethi

The free “Out Smart Flu” app is available now, at and the iTunes and Google Play stores. Participants will be asked to answer a few questions about their health via their smartphones, in the hopes that early information about coughs and fevers will help identify flu trends on campus.


“It’s a grassroots effort to create real-time data about flu on our campus,” says Dr. Ajay Sethi, associate professor of population health sciences.


Sethi and doctoral student Christine Muganda hope to get about 6,000 people on campus using the app, so they can compare its effectiveness to that of traditional flu surveillance methods.


Traditionally, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) rely on sentinel sites, such as the University Health Services, to report increases in patients being treated for flu. But a 2010 study published in the journal Nature found that analyzing web search queries – for topics such as “flu complications” or “influenza symptoms” - accurately predicted flu epidemics before standard methods.


“The Google study nicely showed that mining search term data could identify flu outbreak as much as two weeks before clinic-based protocols used by the CDC,” says Sethi.


UW-Madison students will begin seeing banners, fliers, a team of undergraduate volunteers and a social media effort to promote the app. Muganda says that each time students interact with the app, they will be entered into a contest to win $500, a drawing that will be repeated three times during the flu season.


“We’re hoping we can also appeal to the altruistic side of students: students who are sick will help protect others from getting sick,” says Muganda. She says they will also get feedback about the latest flu trends on campus, in hopes it will encourage them to take more precautions from getting the flu.


While undergraduates are the main target of the study, anyone with a email account can sign up for the app and participate.


“We are targeting undergraduates because they tend to live in close quarters such as residence halls where transmission of flu may be more likely to occur,” says Sethi.


The research study will compare flu surveillance via the phone app to data collected by UHS. People taking part in the study can also view a blog of flu activity at the website. The project is funded, in part, by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Date Published: 09/23/2013

News tag(s):  public healthresearchflu

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Crowd-Sourcing Surveillance of a Campus Influenza Epidemic

Last updated: 10/08/2013
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