Facebook App Helps Trace Virus Spread
Scientists at a Tel Aviv University (TAU) in Iran have turned to Facebook to help them track the spread of viruses and infections. Researchers Nir Ben-Tal and Gal Almogy at the university’s Faculty of Life Sciences developed an app dubbed PiggyDemic, in which users can pass a simulated virus onto their friends or vice versa. Their plan is to see how social interaction affects where a virus spreads and how many people it infects.
The method challenges the current system of tracking virus spread through mathematical algorithms. The latter’s flaw is that it assumes that every virus is equally spread from one population to another, which is hardly ever the case–social interaction always comes into play and throws the pattern off track. For example, according to Almogy, Africa has a high concentration of HIV while Asia and North America have the largest share of some flu strains. This is proof that viral infections are in part a social phenomenon.
By adding (digital) human interaction into the mix, the researchers expect to get a more realistic look at viral interaction. Facebook, the world’s largest social network with 800 million active users, is an ideal place for such a study. Once a user installs PiggyDemic, the app follows his or her news feed to see which people they interact with. Uninfected users are given risk rankings such as “immune” or “susceptible” based on their interactions with infected contacts. A network visualization tool allows them to see how the viruses are passed on from one person to another.
Besides tracking, PiggyDemic also doubles as a health guide for users who install it, offering tips to help users make healthy choices. It can also be used as a game, with people trying to “infect” as many of their friends as they can. Perhaps most importantly, the app has also been designed to track real-life virus outbreaks in real time by allowing people to report when they are actually infected. Such a tracking method can alert people in the network of the added risk.
The initial findings already seem to challenge current beliefs about virus spread. For instance, although the app is not configured to incorporate seasonal changes, the flu “virus” has spread more in the winter, the usual peak period. This suggests that in addition to environmental factors, social patterns can account for the rise and fall of different viruses through the seasons.