Why you should care

Because everything from migraines to Ebola could stand to be a little more predictable.

It’s like Grandma used to say: When it’s going to rain, you can feel it in your bones.

At least, some of us can. Folks who suffer from migraines or arthritis know intimately the way weather is connected to health. Now, they might be able to track their future ailments online via maps and predictions. But mapping meteorology onto medicine isn’t just for those particular people; population health is linked to a number of other sicknesses that affect us all — like nasty flus and allergies — which is why some digital media companies are stepping in to build technologies that give people quick-hit info on upcoming weather patterns. A few examples: AccuWeather, The Weather Network, Google and WebMD. While weather maps for the masses are readily available online, behind-the-scenes medical professionals are tracking the causes and spread of infectious disease using mapping technologies.

Dr. Larry Madoff, a professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and editor of ProMED, an online emerging disease surveillance system, believes weather mapping is an area of “rapid growth” in the health-care profession. Not only is the data behind the maps becoming more powerful, so too are the maps themselves: They can now overlay information regarding the spread of disease with transportation routes, water supplies, vaccination rates and other data that might help pinpoint the cause of certain diseases. As these technologies improve, so too will the effectiveness of the maps.

Forgetting geography when dispersing public health assistance means we’re allocating “trillions of dollars” based on weak information.

No doubt we’re living in an age of new cartographies; big data is increasingly getting linked up to physical spaces, and more and more industries are depending on geographical information services, or GIS. And so while we’ve long tracked infectious disease outbreaks on maps, health professionals are seeing brand new usages, says Dr. Estella Geraghty, the chief medical officer and health solutions director for Esri, which develops GIS software. Geraghty cites one project by the Centers for Disease Control, using cell towers in Africa; they set up a phone number people could call to hear the latest news about Ebola. By noticing where cell traffic was highest in West Africa, the CDC could do “targeted interventions,” whether sending texts to affected areas or helping mourners arrange safer burials. That’s the true potential of weather-based mapping — not just helping individuals know when they’ll feel a twitch in their bones but helping big-time health systems allocate medical resources and provide up-to-date, tailored information to patients.

But most health mapping is still in its early days. We’re far from that better-connected landscape, and farther still from personalizing it for individuals. “It’s one size fits all right now,” says David Mitchell, vice president of digital media and emerging platforms for AccuWeather. Mitchell says his tech is dependent on the evolution of wearable tech and data systems. While tracking medical information might sound a little too Big Brother to some, Madoff believes users will value their health over privacy concerns.

The good news for Mitchell is that there’s a lot on the horizon in terms of digital health. A smart thermometer developed by New York City-based Kinsa Health, for example, both collects and provides up-to-date health information to its users. CEO Inder Singh says the device aims to allocate medical resources and track the spread of infectious diseases in real time, while also providing personalized medical information. A mission not unlike AccuWeather’s, especially thanks to Singh’s plan to have the thermometer link up to data gathered across an entire region. If all went well, one individual noticing cold symptoms might figure out, via a smart thermometer, that strep throat is spreading in the area. The application, in turn, could alert local doctors to increase their stock of antibiotics. (Kinsa just raised $9.6 million in series A funding.) Of course, Singh needs to get a boatload of users on board before his tech can function at all. He boasts just under 15,000 thermometer users and a number of other users taking advantage of the app without the hardware.

The proponents of such technology hope, ultimately, that the new gadgets will shift policy and well-being; Singh argues that forgetting geography when dispersing public health assistance means we’re allocating “trillions of dollars on the flu, AIDS, malaria, etc.” based on weak information. Without knowing where, when or how diseases actually creep along continents, he says, that money’s impact is “significantly diluted.” Such a shift is a long way down the line, of course.

Then again, you hadn’t heard of Fitbit a while ago, either.

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