Scientists have shown that data from social media, such as Twitter, can be used to enhance systems that track foodborne illness outbreaks and also to improve disaster-response activities.
Biostatistician Elaine Nsoesie, a research fellow in pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital, has developed a method for tracking foodborne illness and disease outbreaks using social media sites such as Twitter and business review sites such as Yelp to supplement traditional surveillance systems.
The study's purpose was to assess whether crowdsourcing via online reviews of restaurants and other foodservice institutions can be used as a surveillance tool to augment the efforts of local public health departments.
These traditional surveillance systems capture only a fraction of the estimated 48 million foodborne illness cases in the US each year, primarily because few affected individuals seek medical care or report their condition to the appropriate authorities.
Nsoesie and collaborators tested their nontraditional approach to track these outbreaks.
The results showed foods - for example, poultry, leafy lettuce and mollusks - implicated in foodborne illness reports on Yelp were similar to those reported in outbreak reports issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Online reviews of foodservice businesses offer a unique resource for disease surveillance. Similar to notification or complaint systems, reports of foodborne illness on review sites could serve as early indicators of foodborne disease outbreaks and spur investigation by local health authorities," said Nsoesie.
"Information gleaned from such novel data streams could aid traditional surveillance systems in near real-time monitoring of foodborne related illnesses," said Nsoesie.
In another study, Michiko Wolcott and several colleagues evaluated social media traffic posted during and the days following Typhoon Haiyan striking the Philippines in November 2013 to develop a set of social media analytics best practices for emergency response managers.
Wolcott was part of a team of statisticians from Statistics without Borders (SWB) - an outreach group of the American Statistical Association.
The study's overall objective was to analyse the tweets to identify best practices for data handling, identify analysis approaches for emergency response and recommend data management approaches.
Important considerations and challenges were identified regarding the use and analysis of Twitter-based data sets for disaster response, noted Wolcott.
"Social media can play a critical role in the dissemination of the information, as well as collection of relevant data during natural disasters. The idea of leveraging social media data such as Twitter is intuitively attractive, given their natural ties to mobile devices with obvious disaster response implications," said Wolcott.
Both studies were presented at the 2015 Joint Statistical Meetings in Seattle.