Is Social Analytics Better at Tracking Disease?

January 27, 2012
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disease 150x150 photo (analytics and twitter)

Author: Amanda Brandon 
Spotfire Blogging Team 

disease 150x150 photo (analytics and twitter)

Author: Amanda Brandon 
Spotfire Blogging Team 

  There’s evidence that real-time data from social media is a better source for tracking disease outbreaks when compared to traditional data sources.

For instance, two years after the devastating earthquake in Haiti, a new study shows that Twitter and HealthMap (a project at Children’s Hospital in Boston that creates a worldwide data visualization of disease outbreaks on an interactive map in nine languages) tracked the cholera epidemic, which killed 7,000 people and affected over 500,000, up to two weeks faster than traditional reporting methods.

The research team led by Dr. Rumi Chunara, a research fellow at HealthMap and Harvard Medical School, had a simple goal – to determine if social media analytics could tell us more about epidemic disease faster than traditional reporting. 

According to Chunara’s report in the American Journal on Tropical Disease and Hygiene, it seems so. Chunara writes, “During infectious disease outbreaks, data collected through health institutions and official reporting structures may not be available for weeks.”

This means that early assessment of the situation is weakened. So, the researchers sought new sources of data to speed up the analysis of outbreaks. Chunara’s team discovered that “trends in volume of informal sources significantly correlated in time with official case data and was available up to two weeks earlier.”

In a recent interview with Victoria Nicks of Decoded Science, Chunara says there is real promise for the health community thanks to this study. The main benefit is “this data is available in real-time, so it could be used in a program in real time, so that response measures can be focused and timely.”

Our Take

Chunara’s study is just one example of how time matters in making decisions. In this case, understanding the enormity of the outbreak can speed aid and help treatment teams focus their efforts and possibly reduce the enormity of the situation.

This type of analytics falls right in line with what Vivek Ranadivé, TIBCO’s founder and CEO says about the two-second advantage, “A little bit of the right information, just a little bit beforehand – whether it is a couple of seconds, minutes or hours – is more valuable than all of the information in the world six months later . . . this is the two-second advantage.”

Chunara says she hopes this study inspires more research and development around using real-time data in tracking disease. Our hope is that data analytics plays a major role in reducing catastrophe and saving lives. As we saw last month on the Spotfire blog, the consumerization of data is playing a major role in humanitarian relief and we predict that unofficial, real-time data sources will fuel the same outcomes in reducing disease.

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