Twitter joins fight against Ebola

'There's a whole new field of science that has emerged from these technologies.'
By Eric Wicklund
09:42 AM
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John Brownstein of Boston Children's Hospital employs technology in Ebola fight.

As Time magazine named those fighting the Ebola epidemic its collective "Person Of The Year," a morning keynote and panel discussion last week at the mHealth Summit sought to shine the spotlight on another Ebola fighter – technology.

From companies using social media channels to track Ebola outbreaks in western Africa, to international collaborations targeting mobile platforms and devices as a means of arming frontline workers with information they need, mHealth has taken the lead in combatting this deadly epidemic. And it has provided a blueprint for the tracking and treatment of health concerns as varied as the flu and food poisoning.

"There's a whole new field of science that has emerged from these technologies," said John Brownstein, director of the computational epidemiology group at Boston Children's Hospital, which is using data mining and crowdsourcing of social media channels to paint a clearer picture of the Ebola epidemic in Africa.

[See also: 4 deft ways hospitals use social media.]

Brownstein's "digital disease detection" platform digs into Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and other social media platforms – what he calls "digital exhaust that's generated by consumers" – to pinpoint all comments and conversations taking place about a specific health concern. His application, called HealthMap, then generates a map of that communication frequency and separates the data generated by those social media channels into structured data that can be used by, among others, public health agencies.

The platform has been used to chart the course of Ebola in Africa, pinpoint food poisoning sources (Brownstein notes that 10 percent of all Yelp messages concern food poisoning), and identify influenza outbreaks through the "Flu Near You" app. They've even used Uber's logistics platform in a pilot program in four cities, sending out nurses with the flu vaccine in Uber-controlled vehicles to rush to anyone who pushes the "Uber Health" button on their iPhones.

When asked why social media is such a good tool, Brownstein noted that people are pretty open to discussing anything on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp or other channels, either because they're looking for a sympathetic ear or they just want to get something off their chest. He joked that someone is far more likely to announce on Twitter that they have diarrhea than to mention it to family or friends.

[See also: athenahealth taps EHR data to track flu.]

The success of HealthMap is not lost on global mHealth experts. Sean Blaschke, a health systems strengthening specialist for UNICEF, noted that his organization and others are using mobile health platforms to reach targeted populations all over the world. In Uganda, for example (where Ebola outbreaks  occur every three to five years), the organization worked with the country's wireless carrier to give health workers free access to the government's health sites, arming them with information and digital tools to take the fight to hospitals, clinics and even homes.

Another social media platform is being used in Liberia to connect with youths, he said.

Social media and text messaging campaigns work, Blaschke said, because everybody has a smartphone and knows what Facebook is. Simply dropping iPhones and tablets into these countries won't work, he added, if those areas aren't equipped to handle the extra broadband capacity.

"Don't bring in new tools," Blaschke said. "Invest in what is already there."