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Illness indicators

Technology | Startup hopes to use social networks to provide early warnings of outbreaks

Issue: "Focus on Mitt Romney," July 16, 2011

"Home sick today." "Pass the tissues!" "Anyone have chicken noodle soup?" Colds, flus, and other contagious illnesses often infect whole groups of people at once, and sometimes it's clear there's been an outbreak just from a glance at Facebook or Twitter updates. While that information may only serve to remind users to wash their hands or take their vitamins, several technology companies see a potentially more vital use: tracking epidemics. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does release data about epidemics, it generally does so after the outbreak has begun, so people can rarely act upon the information in a timely fashion to prevent disease.

A new startup called Sickweather plans to monitor publicly available data, like Twitter updates, to map likely outbreak areas and then provide those maps to the public so users can avoid high-risk areas. The company won't point to specific users, but it will use an algorithm to see where many people appear to be ill. Google has experimented with a similar function, but instead of checking status updates, it looks at locations from which certain terms are searched. Recently, the company said that it was tracking locations around the search terms "Dengue Fever," and it said it hopes to build an early warning system.

Into the file

One of the hardest things about reading and researching on the internet is figuring out how to save information and easily search for it later. Web browser bookmarks, saved pages, screenshots-no method is perfect. But one service, Evernote (evernote.com), has simplified the process since its release several years ago and recently topped 10 million users. Users sign up for an account, then create "notebooks" into which they can file and tag nearly anything: audio, video, pictures, documents, text files, and more. Or, using browser buttons, users can "clip" the entire contents of a webpage into a notebook to find it later, or they can email documents to their account.

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After putting information in the account, users can then easily search the notes for text-the software even recognizes and indexes text in photographs. Apps available for nearly every mobile device make uploading simple, and there is a desktop program for Mac and PC, as well as a web client. The desktop programs recently added functionality that allows users to share notes with their Facebook or Twitter followers. Evernote is free, though buying a premium subscription ($5/month or $45/year) provides more upload capacity and more storage space.

Self Examination

Have you Googled yourself lately? Sometimes searching for your name online can turn up unexpected results. Recognizing that many consider their online identity to be important, but few know how to monitor and maintain information about themselves online, Google recently released a tool called "Me on the Web." Users who are logged into a Google account can click on "My Account" to access the tool, which provides links to services such as Google Alerts (which alerts the user whenever a phrase, such as his name, appears) and information about how to monitor and remove data from the web.

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