NEWS

Using Twitter to Track Disease Outbreaks

By Carlton Purvis

Twitter can provide indications of a potential disease outbreak faster than traditional disease surveillance activities. By the time public health alerts are issued and the media picks up the story, people have already been talking about an illness for weeks on social media, the Department of Health and Human services says. 

A new Web application, MappyHealth, uses Twitter to monitor and produce automatic reports on what illnesses people are talking about the most. It's latest weapon in the disease surveillance arsenal.

Local public health operations recognized the potential social media could have in monitoring illness in communities, “but lacked the time and resources to make it a useful data source,” said Diana Kushner, who managed the project for HHS’s Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR).

ASPR held a contest for developers to build an app that could deliver a list of the top-five trending illnesses from a specified region in a 24-hour time period. Of 33 submissions, MappyHealth came out on top.

“Having real-time information available in the public domain through social media like Twitter could be revolutionary for health officials watching out for the first clues to new, emerging infectious diseases in our communities and for modernizing our public health system,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service, in a press release.

Similar Web-based apps can examine a disease outbreak after the fact, but ASPR wanted something that could follow trends in real time. Both the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the Haiti cholera outbreak showed that social media trends can indicate disease outbreaks earlier than conventional surveillance methods, like emergency room reporting.

Early identification can help minimize the spread of disease so the hope is that local and regional health officials use MappyHealth to cross reference Twitter data with conventional surveillance methods.

MappyHealth won the challenge because of its relative accuracy when filtering by keyword (based on a set taxonomy of terms to search that was based on common terms the public uses to refer to different illnesses) and its ability to filter tweets by location. ASPR announced the official launch of the app last Thursday.

MappyHealth today shows that mentions of the common cold on Twitter are up 69 percent in the last 24 hours. Mentions of influenza are up 25 percent and there’s been a spike in talk about STD’s around Washington, D.C.

Last year, I talked to Jennifer Olsen, Fusion Cell Branch Chief at ASPR as the agency was taking its first look at the value of monitoring twitter.

Back then, using Twitter to monitor public health was in its beginning stages. There wasn’t a set taxonomy of words people use to refer to their sicknesses and HHS was still trying to find the best combination of words that would capture ways people were talking about illnesses. ASPR was using mentions of the flu as a baseline.

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