PNNL apps to help fight health threats

Annette Cary, Tri-City HeraldOctober 26, 2013 

A FL-U avatar named Courtney by the user shows symptoms of fatigue, sore throat and coughing.

COURTESY PNNL

Two of life's miseries -- food poisoning and the flu -- could be easier to avoid with two apps being developed by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory interns.

The lab held a competition as part of its support to the Defense Department's Defense Threat Reduction Agency to come up with apps for mobile phones and other devices that would help prevent the spread of disease.

Much of the information needed to fight health threats already is available, including as public data and observations from the public on the street, said Court Corley, data scientist and lead investigator at PNNL.

"What we need is all that information in one place so we can put it in the hands of people," he said. "Mobile apps do that."

The lab recruited seven graduate computer science students -- picking one in 10 who applied -- with diverse strengths in design, engineering and teaching to develop the apps.

"It was their creativity that brought a fresh perspective to solving biosurveillance problems," said Michael Henry, a visual analytics researcher who worked with the students, in a statement.

Each student pitched ideas for apps, with the two most promising ideas picked for development.

FL-U, pronounced "flu you," uses gaming concepts to make voluntarily submitting health information to help create outlook maps entertaining, Corley said.

Systems already exist that allow people to report influenza or flu-like symptoms to databases that can show where outbreaks are occurring in the nation based on where people are reporting symptoms. But they're not fun. A user might check off some boxes and email it to the database.

FL-U has the user create a customized avatar with their symptoms. A fever turns the face red, fatigue creates bags under the eyes, and coughing shows lines coming out of the mouth. When a user is diagnosed by a doctor, a balloon that looks like a germ can be added to the avatar.

The avatar could be used in several ways. It could be kept private or shared with friends, and it could be submitted to the local health department to help with its tracking efforts.

Data also could be compiled on a map, helping show whether the flu season has arrived in the user's hometown -- perhaps influencing travel plans.

The system is designed for an iPhone or other Apple mobile devices.

The other app, FoodFeed, is designed for an Android operating system.

It has three tabs that can be checked on the go, including at the grocery store and when picking a restaurant.

At the grocery store, a user can open the news tab to look for the latest recalls before checking out. A second tab shows restaurant health code violations, including specific violations for a restaurant and a comparison of the number of violations with other restaurants in the city.

The third tab provides general information about food safety, such as the recommended temperature for cooking beef.

The app was picked for development because it conveniently combines individual components now featured on other apps into one source, Corley said.

Initially, FoodFeed has been loaded with information for restaurants in the Tri-Cities, Seattle and three other cities. But the students developed a process to allow other cities to be added, with updates from information available on websites.

The app is interactive, allowing users to share information on social media or to report problems to their local health department.

The next few months will be spent licensing the apps to make them available to the public, possibly through companies that already offer similar services to the public, Corley said.

Then he would like to repeat the internship program and develop more apps, he said.

"Whether it's a natural disaster or a disease outbreak, a public health event can come out of nowhere," said Chrissie Noonan, a PNNL research analyst and mentor to the students, in a statement.

"We're asking how we can stay ahead of the curve, and one answer is to develop mobile tools," she said.

-- Annette Cary: 582-1533; acary@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @HanfordNews

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