By JESSICA MINTZ (AP Technology Writer)
From Associated Press
April 29, 2009 1:19 AM EDT
SEATTLE – Weeks before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization alerted the public to a growing number of swine flu cases, a startup based in Seattle’s suburbs already had a hunch something was up.
Veratect Inc., a 2-year-old company with fewer than 50 employees, combines computer algorithms with human analysts to monitor online and off-line sources for hints of disease outbreaks and civil unrest worldwide. It tracks thousands of “events” each month – an odd case of respiratory illness, or a run on over-the-counter medicines, for example – then ranks them for severity and posts them on a subscription-only Web portal for clients who want early warnings.
The idea fueling Veratect and similar companies is that blogs, online chat rooms, Twitter feeds and news media and government Web sites are full of data that public health agencies could use to respond faster to problems like outbreaks of swine flu.
Veratect attracted attention in recent days by publicly posting a timeline of the outbreak and publishing short reports on Twitter, where more than 4,000 people signed up to receive updates.
But skeptics question whether these companies can reliably detect meaningful signals from all the noise online or whether they are mainly good at spotting patterns in hindsight. Complicating the picture, the companies are reluctant to disclose their sources and methods.
Veratect’s chief executive, Robert Hart, says the company alerted clients to a potentially severe outbreak before the general public learned of swine flu. Veratect’s computer systems, which troll the Web for reports that seem out of the ordinary, unearthed clues, and a team of about 30 analysts, many of them multilingual holders of public health degrees, chased down the ones that seemed most alarming.