Scientists using Twitter to track the flu in real time

By Carrie Johnson Weimar • Published: January 30th, 2012
Category: Health in a Heartbeat

In our digitally connected world, many of us now broadcast the most mundane details of our daily lives. If we bought a new car, we post pictures of it on Facebook. Pet did something cute? Upload the video on YouTube. And if we’re looking for a little sympathy when we’re under the weather, we let our friends know via Twitter.

To some, it might seem like mindless blather. But those tweets about flu-like symptoms can be a gold mine for researchers who want to learn more about epidemics and the way people deal with them.

A team of scientists tracked tweets about swine flu in 2009 and 2010. They then looked at how the short social media messages lined up with vaccination rates. Interesting patterns emerged regarding what people tweeted about flu shots and whether they became sick.

For example, the researchers found that people in New England posted the most positive messages about flu shots on Twitter. This region also had the highest rate of vaccination. Real-time data such as this could be invaluable to health care workers to help them predict an outbreak, alert the public or encourage vaccination.

Of course, using social media as a data source has its drawbacks, too. The medium is notorious for the spread of lies and misinformation. It also generates a huge amount of data, which can be incredibly hard to sort through. For the study, scientists needed the assistance of a computer, which they had programmed to evaluate tweets as positive, negative or neutral.

Now the researchers hope to apply what they’ve learned about studying health-related tweets to other areas, such as obesity and smoking.

So the next time you get the sniffles, go ahead and tweet about it. Who knows? Maybe your 140 characters will make a contribution to science.