Health IT

Crowdsourced idea uses Twitter data for disease surveillance, tracking public health trends

With diseases like the West Nile Virus having a spike in outbreaks compared with recent years, public health officials have a strong motivation to track this and other diseases in real time. A contest to crowdsource ideas on how best to monitor health trends has come up with a winner. Members of MappyHealth developed a […]

With diseases like the West Nile Virus having a spike in outbreaks compared with recent years, public health officials have a strong motivation to track this and other diseases in real time. A contest to crowdsource ideas on how best to monitor health trends has come up with a winner.

Members of MappyHealth developed a way for public health officials to use Twitter for disease surveillance and other health trends in a developer competition to devise effective ways to use the social media tool, according to a statement from the health department. The group was formed by its members to compete in the challenge.

The contest was organized by U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response. MappyHealth beat 32 other competitor submissions for “Now Trending: #Health in My Community.”

Here’s how it works, according to a short description on its website:

We track 223 terms. We then analyze each tweet to determine which of the 26 condition sets it matches. We then determine which of the qualifier words we track are contained within the tweets. This provides our visitors with the ability to see disease trends focused on certain topics such as vaccination, have, don’t have, etc. All of the trending, and filtering is accomplished via a series of algorithms and map-reduce jobs.

“Having  real-time information available in the public domain through social media like Twitter could be revolutionary for health officials watching out for the first clues to new, emerging infectious diseases in our communities and for modernizing our public health system,” said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response and a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service.

Among the criteria for the competition:

Applications submitted to the challenge were judged based on their ability to be innovative, scalable, dynamic, and user-friendly. The winning application had to use open-source Twitter data to automatically deliver a list of the top five trending illnesses over a 24-hour period in a specified geographic region and provide this information in an easily accessible Web-based environment.

MappyHealth in Washington, D.C.won a $21,000 prize for its application, which it will present at an HHS-sponsored public forum discussing citizen-generated data. Its application is expected to be available in a few weeks to state, territorial, tribal and local health agencies.

Thinking of Twitter’s applications for public health go back to the H1N1 pandemic and Haiti cholera outbreak, both in 2009, which showed that social media trends could indicate disease outbreaks earlier than traditional methods. But until now, Web-based apps have tended to be better at tracing a disease outbreak trends in retrospect rather than in real time.

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