IBM's The Weather Channel app using machine learning to forecast allergy hotspots

The Weather Channel is now using artificial intelligence and weather data to help people make better decisions about going outdoors based on the likelihood of suffering from allergy symptoms.

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Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, most people are taking precautionary measures in an effort to ward off coronavirus, which is highly communicable and dangerous. It's no surprise that we gasp at every sneeze, cough, or even sniffle, from others and ourselves. Allergy sufferers may find themselves apologizing awkwardly, quickly indicating they don't have COVID-19, but have allergies, which are often treated with sleep-inducing antihistamines that cloud critical thinking. 

The most common culprits and indicators to predict symptoms—ragweed, grass, and tree pollen readings—are often inconsistently tracked across the country. But artificial intelligence (AI) innovation from IBM's The Weather Channel is coming to the rescue of those roughly 50 million Americans that suffer from allergies.

The Weather Channel now forecasting allergy hotspots

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The Weather Channel's new tool shows a 15-day allergy forecast based on ML.

Image: Teena Maddox/TechRepublic

IBM's The Weather Channel is now using machine learning (ML) to forecast allergy symptoms. IBM data scientists developed a new tool on The Weather Channel app and weather.com, "Allergy Insights with Watson" to predict your risk of allergy symptoms. 

Weather can also drive allergy behaviors. "As we began building this allergy model, machine learning helped us teach our models to use weather data to predict symptoms," said Misha Sulpovar, product leader, consumer AI and ML, IBM Watson media and weather. Sulpovar's role is focused on using machine learning and blockchain to develop innovative and intuitive new experiences for the users of the Weather Channel's digital properties, specifically, weather.com and The Weather Channel smart phone apps.

SEE: IBM's The Weather Channel launches coronavirus map and app to track COVID-19 infections (TechRepublic)

IBM Watson provides early warning

Any allergy sufferer will tell you it can be absolutely miserable. "If you're an allergy sufferer, you understand that knowing in advance when your symptom risk might change can help anyone plan ahead and take action before symptoms may flare up," Sulpovar said. "This allergy risk prediction model is much more predictive around users' symptoms than other allergy trackers you are used to, which mostly depend on pollen—an imperfect factor."

Sulpovar said the project has been in development for about a  year, and said, "We included the tool within The Weather Channel app and weather.com because digital users come to us for local weather-related information," and not only to check weather forecasts, "but also for details on lifestyle impacts of weather on things like running, flu, and allergy."

He added, "Knowing how patients feel helps improve the model. IBM MarketScan (research database) is anonymized data from doctor visits of 100 million patients."

Environmental factors key in allergy location prediction

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Daily pollen counts are also available on The Weather Channel app.

Image: Teena Maddox/TechRepublic

"A lot of what drives allergies are environmental factors like humidity, wind, and thunderstorms, as well as when specific plants in specific areas create pollen," Sulpovar said. "Plants have predictable behavior—for example, the birch tree requires high humidity for birch pollen to burst and create allergens. To know when that will happen in different locations for all different species of trees, grasses, and weeds is huge, and machine learning is a huge help to pull it together and predict the underlying conditions that cause allergens and symptoms. The model will select the best indicators for your ZIP code and be a better determinant of atmospheric behavior."

IBM Watson used for machine learning 

"Allergy Insights with Watson" anticipates allergy symptoms up to 15 days in advance. AI, Watson, and its open multi-cloud platform help predict and shape future outcomes, automate complex processes, and optimize workers' time. IBM's The Weather Channel and weather.com are using this machine learning Watson to alleviate some of the problems wrought by allergens.

Sulpovar said, "Watson is IBM's suite of enterprise-ready AI services, applications, and tooling. Watson helps unlock value from data in new ways, at scale."

Data scientists have discovered a more accurate representation of allergy conditions. "IBM Watson machine learning trained the model to combine multiple weather attributes with environmental data and anonymized health data to assess when the allergy symptom risk is high, Sulpovar explained. "The model more accurately reflects the impact of allergens on people across the country in their day-to-day lives."

The model is challenged by changing conditions and the impact of climate change, but there has been a 25% to 50% increase in better decision making, based on allergy symptoms.

Pollen is not the only culprit

It may surprise long-time allergy sufferers who often cite pollen as the cause of allergies that "We found pollen is not a good predictor of allergy risk alone and that pollen sources are unreliable and spotty and cover only a small subset of species," Sulpovar explained. "Pollen levels are measured by humans in specific locations, but sometimes those measurements are few and far between, or not updated often. Our team found that using AI and weather data instead of just pollen data resulted in a 25-50% increase in making better decisions based on allergy symptoms."

Where to get the allergy advisory tool

Available on The Weather Channel app for iOS and Android, you can also find the tool online at www.weather.com. Users of the tool will be given an accurate forecast, be alerted to flare-ups, and be provided with practical tips to reduce seasonal allergies.

This story was updated on April 23, 2020 to correct the spelling of Misha Sulpovar's name.

Also see

Caution Sign Warning About Upcoming Allergy Season

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