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Trending Illnesses in Social Media

By: Nicole Lurie, M.D., M.S.P.H., Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Department of Health and Human Services

Studies of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the Haiti cholera outbreak demonstrated that social media trends can indicate disease outbreak more quickly than traditional surveillance methods. Early identification of an outbreak allows health officials to respond quickly to protect communities.

Challenge Winner www.MappyHealth.com

Challenge Winner www.MappyHealth.com

Local health departments asked my office, HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (www.phe.gov) for help in using social media to better understand health trends in their communities. So we decided to harness the innovation of the public and put out a challenge to developers to create a user-friendly web-based tool that uses open source Twitter data to automatically deliver a list of the top five trending illnesses from a specified region in a 24-hour time period. The goal is for health agencies to be able to better determine emerging public health threats by cross-referencing this data with conventional surveillance systems and identifying baseline trends.

The entries were impressive and showed a lot of imagination and diverse approaches. The winning entry, www.mappyhealth.com, tracks 25 health conditions using over 200 associated health terms. Taking real-time data from the Twitter API, MappyHealth analyzes tweets to determine which condition they may fall under and then applies qualifiers to further verify the data. Visitors to the site can visualize data in a number of ways including by condition, location and through time-frame trend graphs spanning two, four, 24 and 48 hours. MappyHealth also links to MedlinePlus (http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/) where people can get further information about conditions they see on the site.

The MappyHealth team actually formed through Twitter when Brian Norris reached out looking for teammates via the challenge hashtag, #nowtrending2012, and found Mark Silverberg and Charles Boicey. The team wins a $21,000 prize for the application, which team members will present during an HHS-sponsored public forum discussing citizen-generated data.

We are just at the beginning of learning about what this kind of data means for situational awareness, research, and individual and community empowerment. Reliable and publicly available real-time information has the potential to modernize our public health system and better protect communities. We’re excited to see such creativity and hope this stimulates even more innovation.

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