Now trending on Twitter: Political propaganda.
Agency updates...cholera tracking?
new study, released on the second anniversary of the deadly earthquake in
Haiti, Twitter and the online platform HealthMap
were able to track the cholera epidemic—which has already killed over 7,000
people and sickened 500,000 more—up to two weeks faster than traditional
“When we analyzed news and Twitter feeds from the early days
of the epidemic in 2010, we found they could be mined for valuable information
on the cholera outbreak,” said Dr. Rumi Chunara, lead author of the study.
The study was conducted by scientists at Children’s Hospital
Boston and Harvard Medical School, and is the first to highlight the use of
data from “informal” media sources in tracking the outbreak of a deadly
Informal though they be, platforms like Twitter and
news-combing sources like HealthMap don’t have to wait for bosses to sign off
on paperwork before their data is published—allowing real-time reports to
appear weeks faster than public health agencies. Researchers were able to sift through hundreds of thousands
of #cholera Tweets in the first 100 days of the outbreak, and found trends in
the volume of informal sources significantly correlated in time with official
case data—on top of being available instantaneously.
Researchers were able to collect 4,697 reports via HealthMap
and 188,819 worldwide Tweets. While it wasn’t a perfect science, they were able
to make a general assessment regarding the outbreak activity, including a
calculation of the outbreak’s “reproductive number,” indicating how quickly the
outbreak was progressing. In
general, this data lined up with trailing official reports, and helped
researchers track the disease more proactively than ever before.
The implications of the study grow daily with the advances
of social media. As more and more
people around the world gain access to the Internet and cell-phones, the
usefulness and accuracy of social media increases and expands to purposes far
greater than catching up on the newest Hollywood scandal.
“A valuable next step would be to investigate how we could
do this kind of study prospectively,” said Chunara in an interview with
OhMyGov. “The continuing advances
in how the data is collected (i.e. with GPS locations and other information)
will increase the value of the information.”
In the future, researchers hope to use new advances in
social media to improve the response to disease outbreaks in poor
countries. Without having to wait
for official reports, the immediacy of social media gives anyone who’s
listening a heads up in the face of impending crisis. And thanks to the work of Chunara and her team, the world
now has a better idea of where to start.
“There is a lot of potential for how this type of
information can be used,” Chunara finished. “We hope that our study inspires more studies to understand
it even better.”