Twitter app takes on public health

By Erin McCann
11:34 AM

Twitter, the much beloved social networking site, is set to take on disease outbreaks, after HHS officials announced the release of a new Web-based application tool available to public health officials.

Officials at HHS’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) announced Friday the arrival of MappyHealth, the winning submission in a developers’ challenge, “Now Trending: #Health in My Community,” sponsored by ASPR.

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Health officials say they can use data gained through the app to complement other health surveillance systems in identifying emerging health issues and as an early warning of possible public health emergencies in a community. 

Currently, the top diseases being tracked by MappyHealth are the common cold, STIs, mosquito borne disease, pertussis, tuberculosis, influenza and gastroenteritis. Moreover, the top five locations for these disease-tracking tweets are São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Orlando, Chicago and Los Angeles.

MappyHealth was developed in response to a request made by local health officials to ASPR for help in developing a Web-based tool that could make social media monitoring more accessible to local health departments. According to public health officials, studies of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the Haiti cholera outbreak demonstrated that social media trends could indicate disease outbreaks earlier than conventional surveillance methods. However, many Web-based apps are retrospective, looking back on a disease outbreak, as opposed to attempting to identify health trends as they emerge in real time.

Early identification allows health officials to respond quickly, including advising people on how to protect their health and minimize the spread of the disease. Officials say these strategies can help the community bounce back quickly from an outbreak or a public health emergency – potentially even heading off a public health emergency such as a pandemic.

“Having real-time information available in the public domain through social media like Twitter could be revolutionary for health officials watching out for the first clues to new, emerging infectious diseases in our communities and for modernizing our public health system,” said Nicole Lurie, MD, assistant secretary for preparedness and response and a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. “We were excited to receive so many innovative submissions to our challenge because our goal is to stimulate creativity in the market so that better tools develop to improve public health surveillance locally and worldwide.”

Applications submitted to the challenge were judged based on their ability to be innovative, scalable, dynamic and user-friendly. The winning application had to use open-source Twitter data to automatically deliver a list of the top five trending illnesses over a 24-hour period in a specified geographic region and provide this information in an easily accessible Web-based environment. Health agencies can cross-reference this data with conventional health surveillance systems, build a baseline of trends and determine emerging public health threats.

The team wins a $21,000 prize for the application, which team members will present during an HHS-sponsored public forum discussing citizen-generated data. The new application will be available in the next few weeks to state, territorial, tribal and local health agencies.