If twitter had been around in 1981, the first accounts of cases of pneumonia in otherwise previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles might have been picked up by public health experts in real time, long before it was ever first reported in June of 1981 by the Centers for Disease Control. That’s because public health experts and the CDC have begun turning to twitter and social media to start tracking epidemics and their work represents the future of tracking outbreaks of diseases and the flu. With the recent virulent flu outbreak, Johns Hopkins School of Medical turned to twitter and developed a mechanism to track real time data about outbreaks.
Last summer the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services sponsored a contest to challenge developers to create a system that would track major disease outbreaks. With the bad flu season this winter, using twitter to project outbreaks has gained even greater attention. One of the advantages of this new method is that unlike the CDC reporting which can take two weeks to publish data, new systems are near real time. There’s still some tweaking to do though, since chatter and noise can get in the way but statistical modeling is helping to eliminate those outliers. While we are always concerned about how any health information is used and tracked, particularly for LGBT communities, new public health tracking via twitter could represent a significant technological advance in humanity’s age old fight against future epidemics. To read more about this work and see a cool map of the outbreak, go here.