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Research finds Twitter useful in tracking epidemics

By examining locations and keywords in tweets, big health problems like epidemics might be able to be contained more quickly and effectively.
By examining locations and keywords in tweets, big health problems like epidemics might be able to be contained more quickly and effectively.
Jonathan Hardy/BYU Photo

PROVO — Little might Twitter users know, their tweets may help health officials track disease outbreaks, BYU researchers say.

About 17 percent of Twitter users can be pinpointed between geolocation, the users’ profile information and keywords within tweets, said Christophe Giraud-Carrier, a computer science professor and contributor to a study recently published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. They also discovered that Twitter users accurately reflect the spread of the actual population.

“We get essentially the proportion of tweets from California that you would expect based on the size of the population of California, and the same for Arkansas and wherever,” he said.

Researchers are analyzing the value of using Twitter to pinpoint epidemics and other health issues. Computer systems are programmed to filter tweets with keywords, which then can highlight certain at-risk areas of the country. Giraud-Carrier said people often tweet their symptoms or their actual diagnoses, and if these are caught soon enough, health professionals could provide the needed vaccinations or medication before potential outbreaks get out of hand.

Scott Burton, a Ph.D. student in computer science who was the study's lead author, said the goal with these new opportunities is to find a way to leverage the information and find solutions to big health questions.

"The first step is to look for posts about symptoms tied to actual location indicators and start to plot points on a map," Burton said in a statement.

Hopefully these discoveries lead to further help in other, more social areas, like problem drinking, suicide prevention and domestic violence.

“At some point we’d like to be able to take the data and do two things,” said Josh West, a health science professor and research contributor. “One, be able to alert traditional response avenues to start gearing up for something. Two, use the same social media avenue to respond and intervene.”

The study has garnered broad international interest from health and news websites.

From a technical standpoint, it isn’t difficult for help to get involved in an outbreak case of a Twitter user, but because of privacy considerations, intervention hasn’t happened. Giraud-Carrier said there are ways to help people without being intrusive.

“If I hear something’s wrong with you but also know your network and I know the people you talk to and the people you trust … maybe these are the people I’m going to intervene with and say, ‘Hey, so-and-so is not feeling too good today, you might want to just consider giving them a call or a tweet,” he said.

Before long, there may be ways for health care professionals to get involved before time runs out — whether for a flu epidemic or prescription drug abuse. Social media chalks up another point.