This week saw the launch of Sickweather: a new website which combines social networking with real-time intelligence reporting that intends to forecast the movement of illness. Similar to Doppler Radar scanning the skies for signs of bad weather, Sickweather scans social networks for symptoms of illness. Users are then able to check for the chance of sickness in a particular area as easily as they can check for the chance of storms. The commercial model for the website is built around trying to attract advertising income from pharmaceutical companies.

My risk-averse personality cannot ignore this opportunity for illness-prevention and I’ve decided to give it a go.

Sickweather Home Page

After signing up to the bright orange and blue site, I’m greeted with the message “Susanna, how are you feeling today?” A drop down menu dictates my options which include 23 different symptoms from chicken pox to whooping cough.

I wait to see what compassion Sickweather will offer me as I submit “sore throat,” which I’ve been complaining about since I woke up. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the response was “sympathetic” but it’s closest I’ve come to it all day: “Thank you for telling us how you feel! Get better soon!”

The Sickweather map of the UK is covered by large orange triangles of “symptom activity” and fleeing to South Wales seems the only safe option. However, this is not 28 Days Later and I don’t think my manager will be terribly understanding if I send him a screen shot with “on the run from the common cold” in the subject box. Instead I decide to “see who else has a sore throat” in my postcode. I guess this is the point where I can dole out blame on my neighbours for my current deteriorating state, or experience guilt if none of them are yet afflicted. (For a brief moment I consider abandoning the task as I recall the shame of being the “source” of chickenpox at Brownies twenty-something years ago – scarred without even scratching!) The results come in. “Common cold, headache and flu are going around Waltham Forest.” Blame it is then!

I use the map to zoom in hoping to be able to channel my scorn more directly but the screen only shows two other “single symptom” reports in the area. These are incredibly specific – I could probably locate (or indeed avoid) each sufferer down to within three houses. Presumably this information has been sourced from Facebook or Twitter, as the website itself only located me as precisely as “London.”

Only this weekend I was bemoaning the merciless effects of Facebook updates on your psyche. The constant and addictive stream of sunny location updates, exciting nights out and beaming photos often leave me feeling like I’m missing out: why am I sat in my room staring at a laptop instead of bungee jumping into Victoria Falls dressed as Superman? Sickweather has quite the reverse effect. Yes, I feel a bit rough but look, apparently, so does the majority of the South East. It’s like seeing a zoomed-in photo of Scarlett Johansson with a bright red ring circling some so-called “imperfection.” In the same way that I’m not wishing cellulite and spots on celebrities, I’m not delighting in the knowledge of someone else’s illness, but it does make me feel a little less pathetic.

Sickweather is being promoted on its potential for helping you dodge germ hot-spots but given that unavoidable places such as public transport and the workplace are the most likely areas for picking up the flu, this avoidance isn’t likely to be practical. Seeing the mask-clad commuters in Tokyo left me thinking that the British would never go in for such attire. I think that the true value of Sickweather is as an online empathy tool allowing us to gain a more realistic perspective of the activities and feelings of other people in our community.

Numerous social networking tools already exist for the different “faces” of our lives – LinkedIn, Twitter, FB – and many of us purposefully keep these separate. For me, Sickweather offers an opportunity to express another side. Today my FB profile pic is still me living it large in Canyonlands but on Sickweather, I exist as “sore throat, London.” No doubt this new found self-expression and community-belonging is having a positive effect on my immune system and so there we have it: Sickweather – the online cure for the common cold! Watch the virus spread!