The onset of cold weather also means the onset of another cold and flu season, but this year there is a new way to track common illnesses.  It's a new website nd soon to be iPhone app) called Sickweather.  CEO Graham Dodge tells KTRH the site makes innovative use of social media.  "We're actually tracking reports of illness on social media like Twitter or Facebook," he says.  "So when somebody says my kid has a high fever, or I have a fever, we are able to plot that, qualify it, and put it on a map."  The process is so new, it is still patent-pending.  "We are the first to use social media in this way, for disease surveillance and for tracking illness," says Dodge.

Sickweather monitors several common ailments, such as colds, seasonal allergies, flu, and fever.  "Anyone can go to the site, look up any of the 23 illnesses that we track, and then generate a 5-day animation of that illness to see where it's been and where it's going," says Dodge.  Because the service only tracks self-reported information on social media, there are concerns about its reliability.  Dodge explains that Sickweather cross-checks its data with the official data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and has found the info to be very reliable.  In fact, Sickweather was able to identify the early start of the 2012 flu season, six weeks before the CDC.  "Because it's happening in real time, and we've been able to validate our data against CDC's clinical data, we are able to actually show these forecasts and make predictions faster than the CDC," says Dodge.

As for how Sickweather's technology actually tracks comments on social media, it's only done by location and there are filters built in to ensure better accuracy.  "If they say something like I have 'Justin Bieber fever,' we are able to disqualify those kinds of posts and references to illnesses, so that is not tracked on the map," explains Dodge.  Currently, Sickweather's Houston map shows that reports of Common Cold are on the rise here, not a big surprise with the recent arrival of cold temperatures.