Twitter Helps Track Flu Outbreaks

Seems like everyone these past few weeks has been coughing, sniffling, running a fever – which makes sense, because it’s flu season.

And apparently, according to National Geographic, this flu season could be the longest and worst in years. So far 18 children have died from flu-related symptoms, and 2,257 people have been hospitalized.

One way to fight it? Twitter.

 According to the CDC, 41 states have already reported widespread influenza activity, which is five weeks earlier than usual.

Luckily, physicians and public health officials now have a host of new surveillance tools at their disposal thanks to crowdsourcing and social media.

Here are a few ways Twitter helps us get a sense of the flu’s reach in real time, potentially saving lives and at least saving tissues:

  • HealthMap, which is sponsored by Boston Children’s Hospital, mines online news reports to track outbreaks in real time. Follow them on Twitter for up-to-the-minute updates and to contribute.
  • Sickweather draws from posts on Twitter and Facebook that mention the flu for its data. You can also, via Twitter, see which of your friends are sick, recommend remedies and share your reports.
  • In a presentation at the First International Workshop on Cyber-Physical Networking Systems in Shanghai in 2011, a team from UMass Lowell presented a system called the Social Network-Enabled Flu Trends, or SNEFT. They found that mining Twitter data for flu insights provides a snapshot of the current epidemic condition and a preview of what to expect next on a daily or hourly basis. Unlike Google’s FluTrends project, which bases its numbers on any searches with flu-related terms, Twitter data enables researchers to match a geo-location and descriptive characteristics (gender, name, etc.) with accurate flu messaging. Twitter can provide public health officials with early indicators and robust predictors of influenza like “I have Flu” or “down with swine flu”, rather than just a Google search for flu symptoms. See the difference? Results presented in the team’s scientific publications show that these posts on Twitter closely match the number of flu-like cases reported by the CDC. Pretty cool.

The takeaway: if you find yourself with a runny nose, a hard time sleeping, and/or the thermometer creeping up in number, head over to Twitter.

(Flu image from Shutterstock)