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
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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.

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