San Franciscans have barely begun spilling their snot onto restaurant tables and BART seats, but already we know that illness is going around this weekend. We can thank the wonders of technology and social media -- and namely, a Baltimore-based start-up called Sickweather -- for forecasting symptoms before they happen.
By scouring for key words ("fever," "bronchial," "sore," "doctor," etc.) in tweets and Facebook status updates, sorting them by location, and applying them to regional maps, Sickweather predicts epidemics right before they happen, providing just enough forewarning for the rest of us to take cover.
According to Sickweather spokesman Graham Dodge, the company has a sterling track record. It can identify illness-related tweets or Facebook posts with about 90 percent accuracy (that's mostly a matter of parsing the literal "I have a fever" from the figurative "I have Bieber fever," he says), and its predictions usually have an 82 to 90-percent correlation with those of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here's today's map of fevers:
Last year, the company anticipated a national flu season about six weeks before the Center for Disease Control, which may have been its greatest success, yet.
Naturally, Dodge thinks Sickweather alerts are worth heeding, if only for what they foretell: He and other staff believe that allergies are the root of more severe illnesses, such as bronchial infections and pneumonia.
"It's not enough yet for us to declare that flu season is early again," he writes, via e-mail.
But that can change faster than it takes to tweet about it.