Could social media be used to detect disease outbreaks?

November 01, 2011

New research has looked at whether social media could be used to track an event or phenomenon, such as flu outbreaks and rainfall rates.

The study by academics at the University of Bristol's Intelligent Systems Laboratory is published online in ACM Transactions on Intelligent Systems and Technology.

Social networks, such as Facebook and microblogging services like Twitter, have only been around for a short time but in that time they have provided shapshots of real life by forming, electronically, public expression and interaction.

The research by Professor Nello Cristianini and Vasileios Lampos in the University's Intelligent Systems Laboratory, geo-tagged user posts on the microblogging service of Twitter as their input data to investigate two case studies.

The first case study looked at levels of rainfall in a given location and time using the content of tweets. The second case study collected regional flu-like illness rates from tweets to find out if an epidemic was emerging.

The study builds on previous research that reported a methodology that used tweets to track flu-like illness rates in several UK regions. The research also demonstrated a tool, the Flu Detector, which uses the content of Twitter to map current flu rates in several UK regions.

Professor Nello Cristianini, speaking about the research, said: "Twitter, in particular, encouraged their 200 million users worldwide to make their posts, commonly known as tweets, publicly available as well as tagged with the user's location. This has led to a new wave of experimentation and research using an independent stream of information.

"Our research has demonstrated a method, by using the content of Twitter, to track an event, when it occurs and the scale of it. We were able to turn geo-tagged user posts on the microblogging service of Twitter to topic-specific geolocated signals by selecting textual features that showed the content and understanding of the text."

Over several months, the researchers were able to gather a database of over 50 million geo-located tweets, which could then be compared to official data from the UK's National Health Service on flu incidence by region.

The researchers deployed state-of-the art machine learning algorithms that automatically figured 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.

While it is true that Twitter users do not represent the general population, this study indicates that Twitter can be used to track an event.

Future work could be focused on improving various subtasks in the methodology, enabling researchers to become ever more expert at pinpointing situations, such as a flu outbreak or electoral voting intentions.
-end-


University of Bristol

Related Social Media Articles from Brightsurf:

it's not if, but how people use social media that impacts their well-being
New research from UBC Okanagan indicates what's most important for overall happiness is how a person uses social media.

Social media postings linked to hate crimes
A new paper in the Journal of the European Economic Association, published by Oxford University Press, explores the connection between social media and hate crimes.

How Steak-umm became a social media phenomenon during the pandemic
A new study outlines how a brand of frozen meat products took social media by storm - and what other brands can learn from the phenomenon.

COVID-19: Social media users more likely to believe false information
A new study led by researchers at McGill University finds that people who get their news from social media are more likely to have misperceptions about COVID-19.

Stemming the spread of misinformation on social media
New research reported in the journal Psychological Science finds that priming people to think about accuracy could make them more discerning in what they subsequently share on social media.

Looking for better customer engagement value? Be more strategic on social media
According to a new study from the University of Vaasa and University of Cyprus, the mere use of social media alone does not generate customer value, but rather, the connections and interactions between the firm and its customers -- as well as among customers themselves -- can be used strategically for resource transformation and exchanges between the interacting parties.

Exploring the use of 'stretchable' words in social media
An investigation of Twitter messages reveals new insights and tools for studying how people use stretched words, such as 'duuuuude,' 'heyyyyy,' or 'noooooooo.' Tyler Gray and colleagues at the University of Vermont in Burlington present these findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on May 27, 2020.

How social media platforms can contribute to dehumanizing people
A recent analysis of discourse on Facebook highlights how social media can be used to dehumanize entire groups of people.

Social media influencers could encourage adolescents to follow social distancing guidelines
Public health bodies should consider incentivizing social media influencers to encourage adolescents to follow social distancing guidelines, say researchers.

Social grooming factors influencing social media civility on COVID-19
A new study analyzing tweets about COVID-19 found that users with larger social networks tend to use fewer uncivil remarks when they have more positive responses from others.

Read More: Social Media News and Social Media Current Events
Brightsurf.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.