One of the most recurring complaints about social media is that people use it to advertise mundane facts about themselves that nobody really cares about. But this accumulation of seemingly useless information can be quite valuable when gathered and analyzed in mass.

Sickweather, a Baltimore startup, is in the process of creating a system that tracks social media sites like Facebook and Twitter for public references to "sickness." The system then attempts to create a sickness map that warns people of outbreaks to help them avoid catching the bugs.

The company hopes to establish its own social network eventually, through which users will be able to log in to track the health assessments in their community. For now, however, Sickweather's founders are moving to build a reporting tool on the shoulders of other more established online communities.


Graham Dodge, the CEO of Sickweather, anticipates the system will be particularly appealing to young families with vulnerable children and tells Technology Review that "they can decide, 'Maybe I won't take my kids to that birthday party.' " It’s not difficult to imagine the awkward social dynamics that this might lead to and the many "un-friendings" that could ensue.

Other companies, such as HealthMap, have tried this idea on a wider scale. They have been rummaging through search engines and news stories to create a map of notable epidemics across the globe in an effort to alert the public and help them visualize this information. Sickweather is hoping that by applying the same approach at a local level, and using micro-blogging sites instead of news sources, they can give the public an even more personal health tool.

Credit: Ghislain & Marie David de Lossy/cultura/Corbis