A new study demonstrates that Twitter updates and online news sites give researchers faster access to — and reliable indicators of — disease outbreaks.
Via New Scientist:
In a study published in the January issue of the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, researchers studied the progression of a cholera epidemic in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010.
The study’s lead author Rumi Chunara, a research fellow at Harvard Medical School, used a piece of software called HealthMap to monitor how many times the epidemic was mentioned online during the first 100 days of the outbreak - from October 20, 2010 to January 28, 2011. Her research team also looked at the number of posts on Twitter that mentioned the word cholera.
They discovered 4697 online reports via HealthMap in eight different languages, and 188,819 tweets. Using this data they were able to monitor how the outbreak was progressing. They found that information gleaned from online sources in this way closely matched the official reports, gathered by surveying hospitals and health clinics. The only difference - and huge advantage - was that the online data was available in almost real time, nearly two weeks before the official reports from the government health ministry were available.
This is reminiscent of Google Flu Trends which maps the outbreak of flu around the world based on global search queries. The elegant idea behind it is that as people get sick they search online for information about their symptoms.
Map those results and you have an early detection system for seasonal influenza outbreaks that kill 250,000 to 500,000 people annually.
Study: Social and News Media Enable Estimation of Epidemiological Patterns Early in the 2010 Haitian Cholera Outbreak.