The Loh Down On Science

Could social media help prevent epidemics?

Nagel et al., J. Med. Internet Res., 2013

Figure 2. All tweets containing the keyword flu (pink) and influenza-like illness (ILI) rates (blue) starting September 1-November 4, 2012 (depending on when data became available for a particular city) and ending March 2, 2013. Significant correlations are bolded. [Caption edited from original for length.] ["n=" indicated numbers of tweets]

Flu season is coming!  Get out your hashtags?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, ready to tweet an alarm.

That's because social-media researchers say Twitter could provide an early warning system for outbreaks of diseases like the flu.

A team from San Diego State University monitored the 2012 flu season.  They counted tweets from people living in and around eleven major U.S. cities, paying close attention to the key words "flu," "influenza," "pertussis," and "whooping cough."  Later, they compared their counts with documented cases of flu or whooping cough.  Though the results didn’t match up perfectly, tweets definitely predicted some outbreaks before health officials noticed them.

The best correlation was between tweets that contained the word "flu" and cases of people with flu-like symptoms.  Oddly, the key word "influenza" didn’t match up so well.  Still, by focusing on which keywords work best, the scientists hope to refine the method to provide an early-warning system for disease.

So Twitter is useful.  And so is openly complaining about your flu symptoms.  Let the public airing of grievances begin!  Hashtag you're welcome.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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