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Social media 'could detect flu outbreak'


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.




Readers' comments (3)

  • michael stone

    The concept here seems very reasonable, so I think I would be surprised if that did not work.

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  • This is truly amazing that this can be done - social media monitoring is capable of so much more that counting tweets and the impact that projects like this have for public health are awe inspiring. Having seen and used tools like these I can say,first hand, that this can be done and can be done accurately.

    However we do need to start to take social media and it's potential for health seriously - social media is not merely a folly or pastime it is a useful and important professional tool. Nurses need to embrace social media and be at the forefront of these great advances in health.

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  • michael stone

    teresa chinn | 2-Nov-2011 1:05 pm

    Teresa, why is it 'amazing that it can be done' ?

    I don't use things like twitter, but I am aware that people post lots of 'it has starte dto rain - again' type stuff. So surely it is pretty obvious that if enough people use things like twitter, and the right type of software can be used to pick up on key words, etc, things like th edevelopment of flu outbreaks can be tracked almost on real time ?

    The bit I find 'amazing', is how long it sometimes takes before anyone (including me) actually realises, that this type of thing probably would work, and tries it ! As a species, we humans are not half as clever, as we assume !

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