Infographic: How Social Networks Predict Epidemics

Tuesday, February 19th, 2013
This post was written by Melanie Matthews

In the future, social networks such as Twitter may well help to predict flu outbreaks. Traditional flu tracking performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) relies on outpatient reporting and virological test results supplied by laboratories nationwide that confirms an outbreak within 2 weeks after it has begun.

Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York have used Twitter to track the outbreak of flu through New York utilizing a learning model to determine when healthy people would get sick with the flu. The study, performed by Adam Sadilek and his team, analyzed 4.4 million tweets that contained GPS location data from some 630,000 users in New York City over one month in 2010, using an algorithm that learned the difference between actual reports of illness and other, non-relative uses of words such as “sick.” The results were then plotted on a heatmap used to predict which people in a certain area were at risk of contagion up to eight days in advance.

Social media website, Sickweather declared that the flu season began October 18th, six weeks before the CDC’s official announcement. Sickweather utilized tracking and analysis via social media to predict the start of the flu season after seeing a 77 percent increase in social media reports mentioning flu between August and September. The CDC has even collaborated with Google using their Google Flu Trends tool as a potential source for early outbreak warnings. Other social media tools such as have 20,000 volunteers who are tracking their symptoms, narrowing the spread of flu down to your ZIP code.

MPHProgramsList, an advocate for public health student education has created the infographic visuliazation shown below that highlights the growing influence of social media’s ability to monitor and accurately track public health trends.

how social networks predict epidemics

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You may also be interested in this related resource: Establishing, Managing and Protecting Your Online Reputation: A Social Media Guide for Physicians and Medical Practices.

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