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Twitter Delivering Real-Time Insights Into Flu Patterns

by Lenna Garibian  |  
February 11, 2013

Some 400 million Tweets are posted on Twitter every day, and that vast flow of information is beginning to offer public health researchers new and timely insights into the patterns of disease and influenza, according to new research led by Mark Dredze of The Human Language Technology Center of Excellence (HLTCOE) and Department of Computer Science at The Johns Hopkins University.

Moreover, the researchers' real-time method of flu tracking, based on the analysis of 5,000 publicly available tweets per minute, appears to track closely with government disease data that takes much longer to compile, according to Johns Hopkins.

Since May 2009, Johns Hopkins researchers have been monitoring Twitter messages related to about 15 diseases. But they've been closely following flu-related tweets since early 2011.

Using those tweets, the researchers developed two infographics of the United States that illustrate the stark differences between the 2011-2012 mild flu season and the much higher incidence of the virus in the winter of 2012-2013.

The map below shows the Twitter system's rate of influenza in each state in the first week of January 2013 (higher flu rates are marked with darker red), during which the country was awash in a high flu rate:

By contrast, during the 2011-2012 flu season, the US was relatively unscathed during the same week:

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Lenna Garibian is a MarketingProfs research writer and a marketing consultant in the tech industry, where she develops engaging content that builds thought leadership and revenue opportunities for clients. She's held marketing and research positions at eRPortal Software, GAP Inc., Stanford University, and the IMF. Reach Lenna via Twitter @LennaAnahid and LinkedIn.

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  • by Laurel Mon Feb 11, 2013 via web

    This is an interesting research method, but does not seem to allow for one of the biggest problems with the flu in particular: the vast number of people who self-diagnose as having it, but who never actually saw a doctor and/or had a positive flu test. Just because someone tweets they have the flu doesn't make it true.

  • by Carolin Geissler Mon Feb 11, 2013 via web

    I remember reading an article about this last year and being very impressed by how differently and innovatively Twitter can be used. Your article shows that they have further developed their technique and are getting better at using their method.

    Laurel, I'm not sure that the method is perfected, yet. For example a tweet saying "Got the flu. Someone come over and make me tea?" might automatically be disregarded because of the question mark. I see your point and absolutely think it's valid, but as it says: it's in very early stages.

    And a tad bit creepy, is it not? ;)

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