For those of us in technology, the word “virus” typically connotes some nefarious little bit of code meant to turn our PCs into a zombies or steal our personal information. But as the world braces for what many predict will be a resurgence of the so-called Swine Flu over the next few months, we’ll all be hearing much more about biological viruses, and much less about the digital variant.

Even so, there are no shortage of links between Swine Flu and Technology. Yesterday, I sat in on a call hosted by colleagues in Edelman Health.  Dr. Julie Gerberding, former director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and now senior advisor to Edelman, shared her thoughts in advance of the impending flu season. The discussion got me thinking about all the different ways technology companies are playing a role in the prevention of Swine Flu, and in fact how Swine Flu is catalyzing innovation and driving adoption of new technologies. A look across the board:

Social Media

News of the original Swine Flu outbreak spread quickly on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, with plenty of frightening images showing up on Flickr and YouTube. And while spikes in buzz gave authorities important clues that helped track down hotspots, many critics complained that jittery users reporting symptoms in 140 characters or less caused a worldwide networked panic. But these same authorities harnessed the power of social media to distribute updates, dispel rumors and dispense reasonable advice.  Follow @cdcemergency on Twitter or subscribe to their RSS feed for the latest news.

Data Visualization

Google found themselves defending their privacy policies when they introduced Google Flu Trends, a service that aggregates relevant search queries like “fever” to produce some interesting visual analytics. More useful perhaps is Google’s participation in Health Map, a very rich tool that plots data from a variety of credible sources onto Google Maps. (For those of you who prefer a good hearty Excel spreadsheet, Google has you covered as well.)  The New York Times used an Adobe Flash-based graphic to illustrate the speed and severity of the infection. Today, there is news of a location API for Twitter in the works. One wonders what interesting Swine Flu visualizations this will provide.

 High Powered Computing

High Powered Computing clusters worldwide are helping researchers better understand H1N1’s unique properties, predict how it may mutate over time, and importantly model how the little bugger might respond to various vaccines. These HPC clusters are capable of processing exabytes of data in a fraction of the time it would have taken even two years ago. Similarly, researchers are renting processing cycles on Amazon’s powerful cloud computing servers to analyze data. In one instance, a small group of scientists was able to crunch the data they needed in just 6 days, a process that would have taken more than 140 days on a single desktop computer. Technologists have asserted that pandemics are fundamentally complex data problems, so this sort of processing brawn is proving to be an important part of the solution.

 SaaS

Speaking of cloud computing, many companies and governments are revising their continuity plans with teleworking top of mind. For starters, authorities are advocating “social distance” as an effective strategy to slow the spread of Swine Flu. And of course employees showing symptoms are encouraged to stay home. This is welcome news for companies like Citrix, Cisco, VMWare, Microsoft, Juniper Networks and many more who are pushing SaaS offerings ranging from desktop virtualization to web-based collaboration tools. Swine Flu or not, business marches on. Meanwhile, educators and parents shudder at the thought of prolonged school closures.  This concern has created an extremely fast-growing market for companies like SIMtone, who recently launched a new business unit focused on delivering a whole range of cloud-based educational services to students and school districts.

Hardware

Swine Flu has been a boon for companies that make thermal imaging products, as governments around the world rush to equip their ports of entry with H1N1 screening equipment. Market leader Flir Systems was trading at ~$18/share in March.  By mid-May, they were trading above $26/share, a whopping 44% jump. On another front, Sanyo has announced a new electrolyzed water technology they claim kills off Swine Flu virus. Look for commercial deployments in a public restroom near you by the end of this year. 

Software

The development community is doing its part in the fight against Swine Flu, shipping new code to help hospitals better handle an influx of suspected cases. Patient Care Technology Systems – an EMR player – released an enhancement to their emergency room system that helps triage nurses when a patient presents with Swine Flu-like systems. And new apps are being developed atop of Microsoft’s Amalga platform, some in as little as three hours. Software – fast, infinitely flexible and easily deployed – will continue be a powerful tool as the Swine Flu crisis continues.

 Security

Cybercriminals are preying on public fears, with flu-themed spam accounting for four percent of global spam during the height of the initial outbreak, according to an analyst at Cisco’s Ironport messaging security division. Unsuspecting users who click on mails with clever subject lines like “Madonna caught swine flu” end up installing malware on their machines. Companies like Symantec and McAfee will be very busy this fall fighting virus-inspired viruses and trying to thwart the bad guys. I should point out that the impending launch of Windows 7 adds another layer of complexity, as the black hat community loves nothing more than to expose vulnerabilities in any new OS.

Electronic Entertainment

World of Warcraft devotees (you know who you are) will remember “Corrupted Blood”, a virtual plague that in 2005 infected nearly 100% of the online game’s population. While many players were irate, epidemiologists took the opportunity to study the outbreak, work that later informed theories of how Swine Flu and other diseases could spread in the real world. More recently, a group of Dutch researchers unveiled “The Great Flu”, a highly entertaining game that casts players as the head of the fictional World Pandemic Control organization. It’s certainly better than “The Swine Flu Sneeze”, a somewhat bizarre affair funded by the Wellcome Trust to teach players just how dangerous a sneeze can be.

Surely I’ve missed some obvious links between Technology and Swine Flu thus far. But the trend is clear.  In times of public health crisis, technology serves as a potent remedy by speeding communications, accelerating research, and providing employers, educators and public officials with options that simply weren’t possible even a decade ago. That said, there are side-effects that we – and our tech clients – will need to carefully manage.

One last note: if all of this reading about viruses, sneezing, and pandemics has left you feeling a bit squeamish, you might consider running out and getting yourself a self-sanitizing keyboard. This little beauty tops my holiday wish list this year.

Pete Pedersen
Chair, Edelman Technology
@pete_pedersen

Disclosure:  Adobe, Citrix, Microsoft and Symantec are all Edelman clients.