How Twitter Tracks the Flu

A team of researchers found that the social-media site can raise flags about the spread of the flu weeks before CDC data becomes available.

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 15: Chief pharmacist Ali A. Yasin (L) injects Juan Castro (R) with influenza vaccine as assistant Agripinno Camiolo looks on at New York City Pharmacy in Manhattan on January 15, 2013 in New York City. The state of New York has declared a public health emergency in a flu epidemic of nearly 20,000 confirmed cases in the state.
National Journal
Clara Ritger
March 18, 2014, 11:27 a.m.

New re­search sug­gests Twit­ter — the so­cial-me­dia site best known for spot news and cat GIFs — can also be used to pin­point flu out­breaks.

A team of re­search­ers at Johns Hop­kins Uni­versity and George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity found that tweets are an ac­cur­ate pre­dict­or of where cases of the flu are highly con­cen­trated.

Be­cause Twit­ter pro­duces in­form­a­tion in real time, loc­al pub­lic health of­fi­cials can use the ag­greg­ate tweet data to act early to make re­sources avail­able to com­bat the spread of the flu. Flu re­ports from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion — which are cur­rently used to make pub­lic health de­cisions — have about a two-week delay from the time the in­form­a­tion is col­lec­ted to the time it is re­leased, said lead au­thor Dav­id Bro­ni­atowski.

“I don’t see this as re­pla­cing what [the CDC] does,” Bro­ni­atowski said, “but it might be used as an early warn­ing sys­tem, in par­al­lel with the hos­pit­al data as it’s col­lec­ted.”

Armed with the early in­form­a­tion, pub­lic health of­fi­cials can in­crease vac­cin­a­tions and ready hos­pit­als for an in­flux of pa­tients.

Tweets are tied to a loc­a­tion, and the re­search­ers were able to ac­cur­ately gauge the spread of the flu at both a na­tion­al and loc­al level by check­ing their data against re­ports from the CDC and the New York City De­part­ment of Health and Men­tal Hy­giene.

“This has ma­jor pub­lic health im­plic­a­tions, be­cause if you are try­ing to fig­ure out what the like­li­hood is that you need to pre­pare for a flu out­break and you’re look­ing at na­tion­al data, it doesn’t help you if they’re con­cen­trated in Ore­gon and you’re in At­lanta,” Bro­ni­atowski said.

In ad­di­tion to pre­par­a­tion, pub­lic health of­fi­cials can use the Twit­ter data to un­der­stand the so­cial as­pect of how the flu spreads, Bro­ni­atowski said, be­cause they are able to sep­ar­ate tweets that re­veal aware­ness of the flu in the com­munity from the tweets that in­dic­ate the user is in­fec­ted with the flu.

Fu­ture re­search could ex­plore Twit­ter’s ef­fect­ive­ness in track­ing oth­er dis­ease out­breaks. One of the lim­it­a­tions of Twit­ter is its demo­graph­ics, however, which tend to un­der-rep­res­ent chil­dren and older pop­u­la­tions. In rep­lic­at­ing the res­ults with com­munit­ies smal­ler than New York City, a smal­ler num­ber of Twit­ter users could also de­crease the re­li­ab­il­ity of the tweets in track­ing the flu trends, the re­search­ers said.

The team eval­u­ated Twit­ter’s ac­cur­acy dur­ing the last full flu sea­son, Sept. 30, 2012, through May 31, 2013. One of the re­search­ers on the team was sup­por­ted in part by an award from the Na­tion­al In­sti­tutes of Health and an­oth­er re­ceived a grant from the Na­tion­al Sci­ence Found­a­tion. They con­duc­ted their study in­de­pend­ent of any out­side or­gan­iz­a­tions, and the find­ings were pub­lished in the peer-re­viewed journ­al PLOS ONE.

What We're Following See More »
“CLINTON MUST BECOME THE NEXT PRESIDENT”
Bernie Sanders Seeks to Unite the Party
7 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Instead of his usual stump speech, Bernie Sanders tonight threw his support behind Hillary Clinton, providing a clear contrast between Clinton and GOP nominee Donald Trump on the many issues he used to discuss in his campaign stump speeches. Sanders spoke glowingly about the presumptive Democratic nominee, lauding her work as first lady and as a strong advocate for women and the poor. “We need leadership in this country which will improve the lives of working families, the children, the elderly, the sick and the poor,” he said. “Hillary Clinton will make a great president, and I am proud to stand with her tonight."

“MUST NEVER BE PRESIDENT”
Elizabeth Warren Goes After Donald Trump
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

In a stark contrast from Michelle Obama's uplifting speech, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke about the rigged system plaguing Americans before launching into a full-throated rebuke of GOP nominee Donald Trump. Trump is "a man who has never sacrificed anything for anyone," she claimed, before saying he "must never be president of the United States." She called him divisive and selfish, and said the American people won't accept his "hate-filled America." In addition to Trump, Warren went after the Republican Party as a whole. "To Republicans in Congress who said no, this November the American people are coming for you," she said.

FLOTUS OFFERS STRONG ENDORSEMENT OF CLINTON
Michelle Obama: “I Trust” Hillary Clinton
8 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"In this election, and every election, it's about who will have the power to shape our children for the next four or eight years of their lives," Michelle Obama said. "There is only one person who I trust with that responsibility … and that is our friend Hillary Clinton." In a personal and emotional speech, Michelle Obama spoke about the effect that angry oppositional rhetoric had on her children and how she chose to raise them. "When they go low, we go high," Obama said she told her children about dealing with bullies. Obama stayed mostly positive, but still offered a firm rebuke of Donald Trump, despite never once uttering his name. "The issues a president faces cannot be boiled down to 140 characters," she said.

SANDERS BACKER CONFRONTS STUBBORN SANDERS SUPPORTERS
Sarah Silverman to Bernie or Bust: “You’re Being Ridiculous”
9 hours ago
THE DETAILS

Many Bernie Sanders delegates have spent much of the first day of the Democratic National Convention resisting unity, booing at mentions of Hillary Clinton and often chanting "Bernie! Bernie!" Well, one of the most outspoken Bernie Sanders supporters just told them to take a seat. "To the Bernie-or-bust people: You're being ridiculous," said comedian Sarah Silverman in a brief appearance at the Convention, minutes after saying that she would proudly support Hillary Clinton for president.

‘INEXCUSABLE REMARKS’
DNC Formally Apologizes to Bernie Sanders
13 hours ago
THE LATEST

The Democratic National Committee issued a formal apology to Bernie Sanders today, after leaked emails showed staffers trying to sabotage his presidential bid. "On behalf of everyone at the DNC, we want to offer a deep and sincere apology to Senator Sanders, his supporters, and the entire Democratic Party for the inexcusable remarks made over email," DNC officials said in the statement. "These comments do not reflect the values of the DNC or our steadfast commitment to neutrality during the nominating process. The DNC does not—and will not—tolerate disrespectful language exhibited toward our candidates."

Source:
×