Twitter and Facebook could be used to help detect outbreaks of disease and other phenomena, academics have said.
The social network sites provide snapshots of people’s lives and researchers at Bristol University have examined whether the power of Twitter and Facebook can be harnessed to predict future events.
Professor Nello Cristianini and Vasileios Lampos at the university’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory conducted the research on Twitter using two case studies - rainfall and the outbreak of flu.
In the case of flu, over several months the researchers were able to gather a database of more than 50 million geographically based tweets, which could then be compared with official NHS regional data.
The researchers deployed state-of-the art technology to figure out which keywords in the database of tweets were associated with elevated levels of flu.
In this way they were able to create a predictive model that transformed keyword incidence in tweets into an estimate of the severity of flu in that area and predict whether an epidemic was emerging.
The findings are published online in the academic journal ACM Transactions on Intelligent Systems and Technology.