Smartphones being tested as predictors of virus outbreaks

Researcher Patricia Areán is working with an app intended to gather data about symptoms; 5,500 people are enrolled so far.

As flu season gets underway, researchers hope that thousands will reach for their smartphones to share helpful data.

One app is recruiting 25,000 people across the United States to monitor health, with the aim of predicting the next viral outbreak.

It's called the Health and Injury Prediction and Prevention Using Complex Reasoning and Analytic Techniques Integrated on a Cellphone App, or HIPPOCRATIC app.

Participants answer daily questions about their mood, physical and social activity, and sleep, and allow the app to collect passive data from sensors on the phone. The goal of the two-year study is to develop algorithms that enable continuous, real-time assessment of individuals’ health by making use of data that is passively and unobtrusively captured by smartphone sensors, the researchers said.

“This is a huge opportunity for us to get a sense as to whether or not phones could basically become a personal screener for an illness,” said Patricia Areán, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. She is leading the app's rollout.

So far, the study has recruited 5,500 participants, who Areán said are a representative sample of racial and ethnic backgrounds that align with percentages reported in the 2016 U.S. Census.

Smartphone recruitment gives researchers wider reach to participants from rural areas and from different backgrounds, including populations typically less accessible to researchers.

"We still need to work harder to reach these communities,” said Areán. “Our hope is that by giving them the voice they so desperately need, identified early so that these communities no longer experience the extreme negative impacts of future outbreaks."

The Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the project. The data collected is useful for both viral outbreaks and head injuries as well.

Dr. Bethany Bracken, principal scientist at Charles River Analytics, which is helping to develop the app, said the technology could diagnose illnesses and injuries sooner, which is critical for keeping members of the military more protected. Early detection of illness and injury often yields a better outcome. For example, infectious diseases that are not detected can spread quickly through a population.

The HIPPOCRATIC app is being developed in partnership with Assured Information Security in New York, Kryptowire in Virginia, and Tozny in Oregon.

Enroll here. (Currently, the app is available in English only.) 

For video of Dr. Arean speaking about the app, please see our resource page.

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