If you don’t have the flu right now, you probably know multiple people who do–and if you’re an especially wary healthy person, there’s a decent chance you’re disdainfully watching out for people coughing in your personal space. “You want to blame someone when you catch something. That’s something no one ever talks about,” says Richard Fine, the cofounder of Help Remedies, the health product company behind the Help! I’ve Cut Myself and Want to Save a Life bone marrow donation initiative.
That’s the premise of the company’s new Facebook app: Help! I Have the Flu. Help’s app uses a complex algorithm to figure out which of your friends made you sick (or might make you sick in the future). The algorithm scans your news feed and the feeds of your friends, looking for a series of keywords (i.e. “feel terrible,” “run down”) as well as high-risk behaviors like staying up at night and being out a lot. It then cross-references that information with how much contact you’ve had with your high-risk and sickly friends.
I don’t have the flu yet, so I tried out the app to see who might be threatening my health. Amazingly, it seems that most people in my Facebook feed don’t have the flu either–at least, they’re not talking about it. One friend is listed as a prime suspect for “multiple late night posts” and living “within sneezing distance.” A coworker is listed as a risk for her late-night posts, but she lives across the country, and her supposed late-night posts came at 5 a.m. She wasn’t staying up late–she happened to go to bed on the night in question at 8:30 p.m.–but rather getting up early.
Help! I Have the Flu has only been available for a couple days, but it’s quickly gaining traction. “Facebook and marketing is always tough. I’m not a fan of classic brands either posting easy things, like philosophical quotes or whatever and sort of trolling for comments like, ‘Oh, how are you doing today?’ kind of thing, which is the typical way people market on Facebook,” says Fine. He believes that the app has grown in popularity because it appeals to the core of Facebook: interactions between friends.
The app is far from perfect, but Help is continually honing the algorithm. “Right now it’s a fun and somewhat useful app, and my hope is that by use and improvement we can get it to be a pretty useful one,” says Fine.
For a more general–and scary–overview of where the flu is traveling across the country, check out Google Flu Trends.