How what you say on Twitter could help stop an epidemic

(dullhunk/Flickr)

(dullhunk/Flickr)

Monday I posted to Boston Children’s Hospital’s Vector an interview with John Brownstein, PhD. An epidemiologist and a member of Boston Children’s Informatics Department, Brownstein is the co-founder of HealthMap, a disease monitoring service that uses digital data — such as online news reports — to detect and track infectious disease outbreaks the world over.

HealthMap is part of a growing list of projects and technologies that are coalescing into a new field of research called digital epidemiology or digital disease detection. It’s a way of using data available over the internet — tweets, data from Google queries, Facebook interests, etc. — to augment traditional methods of public health surveillance, the kind of surveillance that says, “There’s an outbreak of mumps in Wales” or “an outbreak of measles in New Jersey.” Or, as John and I discussed in his interview, “a new kind of bird flu infecting people in China.”

As I note at the start of the interview:

From the flu to choleraobesity to vaccine concerns, data from Twitter, Facebook, mobile phones, search engine queries and other web-based sources are changing the nature of epidemiology, public health surveillance and outbreak preparation and response.

As a field, digital epidemiology has grown up a lot since the 2003 SARS epidemic. For instance, I asked Brownstein to compare digital surveillance for SARS with that for avian H7N9 flu (which is on the rise in China). His response:

“Digital epidemiology has come a long way. The kinds of data available have grown exponentially, as has the access to those data. With SARS, there was very limited data available, and you really had to dig deep into the Web to find out what was going on.

With H7N9, we’re drinking from a fire hose. We’re seeing amazing spread and volume of data over social channels coming out of China, especially through new sources like Weibo, a Chinese social media site analogous to Twitter. Remember, it was a hospital worker who broke the news to the world that H7N9 was causing human infections by sharing a photo of a patient’s medical record on Weibo.”

You can check out the full interview here. If you want to get a sense of how digital epidemiology and traditional epidemiology compare, check out the video accompanying this story on NPR.

Other things I’ve written on Vector lately:

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