The government is using figures showing the number of people going to their GP with flu-like illness to track the spread of swine flu.

Purely as an experiment, I have mapped these figures (based on more than 3,400 practices involved in a Nottingham University/Health Protection Agency programme) for the primary care trusts in the North East.

Click here to see the full map - a sample picture is below. The red markers are PCTs with what are considered "significantly high results". Click on the markers or PCT names for figures. The stats used are for the week commencing 6 July - the latest available to me at the time of writing.

Swine flu Google map sampleSwine flu Google map sample

I have used the Google Maps API which allows you to map a list of your own points and information using JavaScript. I've not done it before and had to follow tutorials (and copy code) from a helpful website. That's why it doesn't look very good.

All the existing Internet swine flu maps that I've found look a bit irrelevant now it is very widely spread. The BBC has been tracing global spread, there are attempts to aggregate news stories, and to create maps through mass collaboration.

The numerous barriers to properly mapping area-by-area pressure in the UK include:

  • The Department of Health has not been forthcoming with data that is being collected on swine flu related inpatient numbers and how pressured services are. The DH says these figures are not reliable enough to be made public.
  • The consultation rate data mentioned above is only released weekly, and delayed by a week, though it is collected daily and appears to be available to the DH a little earlier.
  • The GP data is provided as a pdf file. Copying it to a format that can translate to Google Maps takes a long time and would have to be repeated each week/day.
  • You have to look up the longitude and latitude for each PCT. Obviously it should be whole PCT areas that are mapped not specific points. This is probably possible using the Google Maps API but much more complicated.

The problems could be overcome by authorities supplying more information in a more useful way, and more time and resource investment. There is plenty of health information in addition to swine flu figures, and usually more reliable, which could be made much more accessible.

But would that sort of information be useful to NHS managers? Probably not unless it was a lot more "real time" and detailed than what is already out there. Would it be useful, or of interest, to other NHS staff? Possibly. Would it be of interest to the public? Probably.

Would it be useful to the NHS for the public to have better access to more of this information? There may be risks such as causing alarm. It should be accurate and sensibly presented. But it would support choice and patients' involvement in their own care. It can inform decisions and possibly balance and reduce demand.

Should the DH and its information outposts (Choices, Direct) be providing more? If there is unmet demand, why is no one else stepping in to provide the information?