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PRI’s The World explores promise, pitfalls of tracking disease by social media

Google, Twitter and Facebook are basically online conversations that disease detectives (aka epidemiologists) can use to monitor public reports or discussions of illness outbreaks and trends. That's the idea anyway.

Tweets and Germs is a cool, and important, story by The World’s science editor Rhitu Chatterjee. Google, Twitter and Facebook are basically online conversations that disease detectives (aka epidemiologists) can use to monitor public reports or discussions of illness outbreaks and trends.  That’s the idea anyway.

HealthMap

The problem with this approach is that people don’t just talk about disease because they are experiencing it. Sometimes they just make a comment about a disease elsewhere, which the social media robot overlords that run Twitter, Google and Facebook can’t always distinguish from an actual case of illness. As Rhitu notes, one such site recently saw a spike of chatter about pneumonia. Was it an outbreak? Nope:

Closer scrutiny of the content of the tweets revealed that people were not saying that they or their friends had pneumonia. Rather, they were tweeting about the recent illness of Nelson Mandela.

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About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.