HHS launches Twitter public health app contest

By Mary Mosquera
12:39 PM
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The Health and Human Services Department (HHS) has launched a developer’s challenge to create a public health application that takes Twitter data for a specific geographic area and counts the frequency of common illness-related terms to come up with a list of top five trending illnesses for the past 24 hours.

The top-five list would be automatically delivered daily to public health practitioners at health departments via a Web-based widget.

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This information can then be used by the health departments to build a baseline of trend data, engage the public on trending health topics, serve as an indicator of potential health issues emerging in the population, or cross-reference other data sources.

Entrants must submit their apps for the content, titled Now Trending: #Health in My Community, by June 1, according to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response ASPR) in an announcement in the March 20 Federal Register.

Social media trends can be powerful indicators of community health issues. However, current Web-based apps look backward, collating social media data to show how trends developed. The ASPR challenge would create a Web-based app to use social media data as an advance signal of a public health emergency, said Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response and a rear admiral in the Public Health Service.

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“When we looked back at the H1N1 pandemic, we saw that, in some cases, social media trends provided the first clues to flu outbreaks,” she said in a statement. Based on that 2009 pandemic experience, local health officials asked for help in developing a Web-based tool that could make social media monitoring useful as part of the surveillance systems in place now to identify new diseases early.

With early identification, health officials can respond quickly, including advising people how to protect their health and minimize the spread of the disease. Minimizing the spread of disease could help the community bounce back quickly from an outbreak or a public health emergency – or potentially prevent a public health emergency, such as a pandemic, from occurring.

Winners will be notified in August, and the grand prize is $21,000. Applicants can register at www.nowtrendingchallenge.com.