Whilst social media tools have primarily been used for commercial ends, there is a growing stream of evidence showing that it has scientific and social benefits as well. Nowhere is this more so than in the tracking and prevention of diseases.
For instance Google Flu Trends tracks search queries and applies its trending algorithm to gain an understanding of where flu outbreaks are occuring. A 21 month study by John Hopkins University found that the app was exceptionally good at predicting when hospitals would start to see people coming in with flu symptoms.
Primary investigator of the study, Dr. Richard Rothman, said that the results were promising for “eventually developing a standard regional or national early warning system for frontline health care workers.”
Social media context
It could be argued however that social media is a better method of tracking the spread of infection because it provides you with better context. Back in January the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene reported that tweets and other public ‘status updates’ were a better way of determining the spread of cholera in post-earthquake Haiti than official channels. The research was conducted by scientists at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School and with over 6,000 people having died from the disease in Haiti, it has serious implications in terms of disaster prevention.
“When we analyzed news and Twitter feeds from the early days of the epidemic in 2010, we found they could be mined for valuable information on the cholera outbreak that was available up to two weeks ahead of surveillance reports issued by the government health ministry,” said Rumi Chunara, PhD, of the Informatics Program at Children’s Hospital Boston, Research Fellow at Harvard Medical School, and the lead author of the study. “The techniques we employed eventually could be used around the world as an affordable and efficient way to quickly detect the onset of an epidemic and then intervene with such things as vaccines and antibiotics.”