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The wisdom of unhealthy crowds: Web 2.0 takes on the flu

It's a familiar situation: the onset of some unpleasant symptoms of an illness leaves you wondering whether this is just the latest flu bug to wander into town, or if it's the first signs of something more serious. A new website called WhoIsSick hopes to harness websurfers' willingness to share what they're feeling in the hope that the information will provide a better perspective on whether to worry. 苏州美睫美甲

The National Institutes of Health's information page on meningitis (a potentially fatal illness) illustrates the problem well: who hasn't had some of the symptoms on that list? The decision on whether to seek medical attention can be made more intelligently if you have some sense of whether there's a nonlethal virus that triggers similar symptoms going around.

This question hit home for founder P.T. Lee when his wife fell ill while on vacation, and couldn't decide how worried to be about it. Although some information regarding the spread of illnesses is available, sites like the CDC focus on specialized information and don't break things down on a fine scale, geographically. Most people aren't even aware of these resources, and tend to rely on friends and coworkers, who may not be available or have good information. Since he was on vacation, Lee had no access to these sorts of resources; after a drawn out visit to the local ER, he wound up convinced that there was a need for something better. To fill that need, he created WhoIsSick.

The site uses Google Maps to power its geographic features, but beyond that, the code is homegrown. Users generate content by inputting their zip code, choose from a list of symptoms, and add age, sex, and notes on their symptoms. "Symptoms were chosen to balance simplicity and coverage," Lee told Ars. "Based on research on health sites like CDC and discussions with doctors, we felt the six symptoms groupings would cover 90 percent of the common illnesses out there."

Those looking for information can search geographically, and filter based on symptoms, time, and other details. There's also a forum, although that currently features only about 25 posts. Ultimately, however, Lee plans on integrating the forums more closely with the rest of the site's content as WhoIsSick moves out of beta. Other plans include a weather map-style view of where infections are raging, as well as allowing other sites to incorporate limited pieces of content.

To be useful outside of large urban centers, Lee figures that they'd need about 100,000 visitors a month based on the assumption that only a few percent of them will contribute information. So far, he's optimistic: "The traffic has been stronger than expected. We are about three weeks into launch and are in the tens of thousands of unique visitors with a strong ramp."

Long term, however, WhoIsSick faces some of the same problems other sites do, from spam and other spurious submissions. But it also has some pretty unique issues, such as the probability that the target audience includes hypochondriacs who could amplify a few sniffles into a raging epidemic. Lee hopes that analytic software and filtering will help limit the impact and suggests that people will be interested in trends instead of specific reports.

The bigger problem for WhoIsSick, however, may be less with its content, and more with how people wind up using it. Lee says, "We really only want this site to be one additional source of data—not something that people would rely on for medical decisions." The site bears a disclaimer saying that "WhoIsSick is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice."

The fact that most of us recognize the problem WhoIsSick is supposed to help with provides some indication of the frequency with which people may end up checking their latest symptoms at the site. It seems inevitable that someone will eventually make the wrong decision based in part on information there; hopefully, when that happens, the disclaimers on the site will be sufficient to avoid a lawsuit. Because, for the majority of illnesses, WhoIsSick should provide some useful reassurance.