fantastic twitter chat on the use of social media for public health. During the event, our moderators posed the following question: "Are there any other diseases (besides the flu) that we could track on social media?"
The question generated a very lively discussion that I was inspired to revisit on Storify this morning after reading the Washington Post's article, "Twitter becomes a tool for tracking flu epidemics and other public health issues."
The WP article highlights several advantages and challenges of monitoring public health diseases and/or conditions on twitter. My twitter chat colleagues brought up many other important issues for us to consider, so I'm including these expanded lists:
- Offers real time data on health or behavior (Government data can often take weeks or months to be released)
- There is so much available data!
- It could capture cases that would not otherwise be formally documented at a physician's office or hospital.
- It has proved helpful in tracking time sensitive disease outbreaks (e.g., Novovirus). *Check out this article about how twitter was used to track Norovirus activity during a journalism conference.
- Accuracy and case definition (i.e., does a twitter user really have the flu or just a bad cold?)
- Tracking specific words like "sick" or "flu" can bring up a lot of content that is unrelated to the twitter user being ill themselves (e.g., "I'm so sick of this terrible weather"). *Check out how Johns Hopkins researchers are working to address this problem by better screening tweets.
- We must differentiate between tracking symptoms vs. tracking cases- they are not the same.
- Our search strategies should include various terms or slang that are used to describe the disease or behavior of interest.
- Caution: media coverage of certain illnesses can cause a spike in key words on twitter without a rise in actual cases.
- What are the privacy concerns?
- Twitter might not thoroughly capture diseases or conditions that carry stigma (e.g., mental illness) because users may be hesitant to discuss them in a public forum.
- Results could be skewed by populations who are over or under represented on twitter.
- Do we need to train "trackers" to intervene? E.g., what if they are monitoring dangerous tweets/behaviors like suicidal ideation and attempts?
While the challenges list is quite long, I hope we are not discouraged! I think twitter is an enormous resource for public health professionals. We just need to be thoughtful and thorough regarding how to use twitter effectively.
The Washington Post article and related stories shared great links to more information about research in this area:
- YouTube video on University of Rochester efforts to track influenza on twitter. It also describes their related app: Germ Tracker (warning: it may have you hopping off your regular morning bus).
- Johns Hopkins University article: "You Are What You Tweet: Analyzing Twitter for Public Health".
- Brigham Young University article: "'Right Time, Right Place' Health Communication on Twitter: Value and Accuracy of Location Information".
- A great article that highlights what we can learn from Google Flu (since their predictions were off this year)- emphasizes the importance of "re-calibrating" your models or algorithms each year.
What Do You Think?
- What other advantages and/or challenges should we add to the list?
- What other resources can you share?