The University of Newcastle, Australia

How a simple idea inspired a University of Newcastle researcher and public health clinician to create the largest crowd-sourced public health surveillance system in the world.

Influenza is a highly contagious and potentially deadly disease that’s commonly spread through coughing and sneezing.

Every year in Australia, the flu leads to over 300,000 visits to our GPs, more than 13,000 hospitilisations and roughly 3,000 deaths.

Dr Craig Dalton – a public health clinician, researcher and lecturer with the University of Newcastle – developed the award-winning FluTracking program which uses data from members of the public to help determine the onset of influenza and better understand the burden and severity of the disease.

FluTracking started out in the NSW Hunter Valley with 400 participants in 2006. Today it has more than 40,000 participants from every state and territory in Australia – making it the largest crowd-sourced public health surveillance system in the world.

It’s also turning big data into highly valuable medical intelligence.

The opportunity

FluTracking was inspired by a 2005 article entitled ‘Did you have the Flu last week?’ It described a telephone survey of 1,500 people in Sweden designed to establish a snapshot of flu rates in that country.

Intrigued by the concept, Dr Dalton set his sights on finding a better way to get this important information from more people, more frequently and more efficiently.

At the time, there were basic, one-off online survey platforms but nothing that allowed health professionals to follow an entire cohort of people week to week and year to year.

With FluTracking, Dr Dalton has found a way to harness the power of the internet to collect public health information on a scale never seen before.

How FluTracking works

FluTracking uses a weekly web-based survey to collect data from people in the community during Australia’s annual flu season (usually May to October).

The survey captures symptoms, time taken off work, vaccination status, laboratory results and much more.

The data helps health professionals detect seasonal influenza, pandemic influenza and other diseases so they can protect the community from epidemics.

FluTracking also enables year-to-year comparisons of the timing, attack rates and severity of the virus in specific communities.

Data and reports are posted weekly during the flu season on the FluTracking website for participants and members of the general public.

Data is shared with public health departments on a monthly basis, so emergency departments, public health units and other services can monitor flu in their local region.

FluTracking data is also fed into the National Influenza Surveillance Scheme, which monitors the virus, its severity, transmission and virology across the country.

Involving end-users

Determined to make the web-based survey as simple and intuitive as possible, the FluTracking team made the strategic decision to collect minimal demographic information from participants.

It also designed the weekly survey to take no more than 10 seconds to complete.

The development team by-passed user names and passwords for participants and instead designed the system to ensure each user had their own unique link which captured their weekly responses over time.

The team involves new and existing participants in design and user testing with every feature change it introduces.

It has also experimented with various recruitment strategies to grow participation, which is essential for crowd-sourced research and enables richer data.

Expansion plans

FluTracking started in the NSW Hunter region and today collects data from more than 40,000 people across every state and territory in Australia.

The success and benefits of FluTracking have caught the attention of other organisations worldwide.

Dr Dalton and his team partnered with the New Zealand Ministry of Health to expand FluTracking to that country in May 2018.

Since then, more than 6,000 people representing 507 postcodes across the North and South islands have registered to participate in FluTracking.

The FluTracking team consulted on the development of a US-based influenza monitoring system called ‘Flu Near You,’ which launched in 2011.

Dr Dalton and his team are working to expand FluTracking to South East Asia.

They’re also working to adapt the tool to monitor and support other acute events, including thunderstorm asthma outbreaks and water contamination events.

Dr Craig Dalton

Dr Craig Dalton

It’s also turning big data into highly valuable medical intelligence.

FluTracking is a partnership between the University of Newcastle, Hunter New England Health Local Health District, the Hunter Medical Research Institute and the Federal Government.

In 2018, the FluTracking initiative won a coveted Research Australia award for Data Innovation.

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