Tracking Disease Through Social Networking

Many government agencies concerned with homeland security have programs and technology that filters or mines millions of pieces of information (phone conversations, posts on the internet) looking for key terms that have been flagged in a central data base. When the program detects one of these terms or phrases (Taliban is an example of one of these terms) it is flagged, and an analyst at the agency is alerted and given the information of where the alert is coming from. After some research, if the flag is considered a threat the agency will start to monitor the person or people responsible pretty closely. In the article “Tracking the Flu with Technology,”a new method, much like the method mentioned above, for tracking contagious illnesses is being introduced. Researchers at Johns Hopkins university have taken the ideas of government spy agencies like the CIA and developed a method for filtering online posts (like tweets) and searches (google searches) to show areas that are being affected by epidemics like the flu virus. When people tweet about how sick they are, their tweet is then picked up by the filter and reported back to the researchers. The researchers can then track where the tweet came from and get an idea of an area that is or may soon be affected by an outbreak. This kind of information filtering can prove to be invaluable to disease prevention moving foreword. Currently, the Center for Disease Control is the US authority on predicting and tracking disease outbreaks, but by the time the information they gather gets to the everyday citizen it is 2 to 3 weeks old already. By using this new technology, agencies like the CDC can use and distribute real-time information to help regions prepare for an epidemic that otherwise would go unnoticed until everyone was already sick. It is true that the system isn’t full proof, key terms that the program is supposed to look for could be miss used, but still the idea is worthy of further R&D. If this technology could help to predict, prevent or even lessen the severity of a virus like the flu, it is worth its weight in gold. This is just another example of what you can get done when it comes to utilizing social networks, and networks in general.


3 thoughts on “Tracking Disease Through Social Networking”

  1. I recently read an article in Wired about Sergei Brin (co founder of Google) and his ideas to study disease through online searches. He thinks he’s developing Parkinsons, which he has a genetic predisposition for, and demonstrated that a body of people who list everything about themselves in a data base can be used to conduct highly advanced medical studies far more quickly and cheaply than actual medical studies. I suppose this means that even static medical networks have value.

  2. This reminds me of the way Twitter was used in Egypt. People were able to communicate w/ each other on what was happening during the time of riots and war, enabling people around the world to have visibility on what was occurring in Egypt almost instantaneously. This crazy networking seems to be useful in a similar way here, preventing disease from spreading and containing outbreaks.

    1. (Woops, hit the post comment button accidentally.) Although using Twitter or other networking sites as your eyes only doesn’t seem to be the best idea, I feel like it’s a great tool to have visibility in places that you would otherwise not.

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