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Surprising ways researchers use social media to track disease

Lana Bandoim's picture
Mobile pone and tracking disease

Researchers are turning to social media to track diseases and outbreaks. The next time you post a Tweet or update a Facebook status, you may be part of the data.


Social media is becoming an important part of the fight against common diseases and outbreaks. It is giving researchers an easy way to track health problems and get updates. Although there are concerns about privacy and the security of the data, this has not stopped many researchers from using social media.

Mining data

One of the ways researchers are using social media is to mine data and gather information. Even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is sponsoring contests to encourage the invention of apps to mine social media for health data. Many are using Twitter, Facebook and other social networks as a form of digital infectious disease surveillance.

For example, some apps and programs are designed to automatically go through news updates and posts to see if specific diseases are mentioned. Social media is not the only source of data. The apps and programs also search through news stories on other websites, public government reports and other sources. Data mining is a growing trend in many industries.

How data is used

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A study from Johns Hopkins researchers reveals that the data has multiple uses. However, a large portion of the research has focused on using the data to track the flu or influenza. Nevertheless, it is clear that data mining shows potential for other diseases that spread quickly.

“Health organizations require accurate and timely disease surveillance techniques in order respond to emerging epidemics. Such information may inform planning for surges in patient visits, therapeutic supplies, and public health information dissemination campaigns,” explained researchers.

The information gathered from social media can reveal where the disease is currently located and where it is spreading. Since Twitter and other social networks allow for geographic tagging, it is easy to see who is affected in specific locations.

Problems and concerns

One of the problems of using social media to mine data is the need to separate the information into the correct categories. It is important to filter the data because not everyone who posts an update about a specific disease may have it. Some people may simply share news updates or talk about others who are sick.

“We have found that the accuracy of most social media surveillance systems declines with media attention. This is because media attention increases Twitter ‘chatter’ – tweets that are about the flu but that do not pertain to an actual infection. These messages can mask signs of actual infection. Examples include tweets indicating awareness of flu (e.g. ‘I hope I don’t get the flu’) and reports of a celebrity’s flu. Disproportionate media attention has similarly resulted in prevalence overestimates in Google Flu Trends, another web-based flu surveillance system,” explained researchers.

Other problems include concerns about data privacy and security. Although the information is usually aggregated without the inclusion of people’s names, this has not alleviated all of the worries about misuse of data. As the trend to use social media to gather information about health continues to grow, these concerns will not fade.