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Social Data for Ebola Surveillance

Algorithms that map social media posts and mobile phone data can help researchers track epidemics.

By | August 26, 2014

FLICKR, NIAIDSocial media, local news, and mobile phone data are helping researchers develop tools to track and predict the path of the ongoing Ebola outbreak.

Nine days before the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Ebola epidemic, a “mystery hemorrhagic fever” was spotted by HealthMap, software that mines government websites, social networks, and local news reports, among other sources, to map potential disease outbreaks. Run by researchers based at Boston Children’s Hospital, HealthMap uses “online informal sources for disease outbreak monitoring and real-time surveillance of emerging public health threats,” according to its website.

The early warning “shows some of these informal sources are helping paint a picture of what’s happening that’s useful to these public health agencies," HealthMap cofounder John Brownstein, a computational epidemiologist, told the Associated Press.

Anonymized data that revealed the geographical movements of 150,000 mobile phone users in Senegal is being used by Swedish nonprofit Flowminder to help predict how travel might shape the spread of Ebola. “If there are outbreaks in other countries, this might tell what places connected to the outbreak location might be at increased risk of new outbreaks,” Flowminder cofounder and Executive Director Linus Bengtsson told MIT Technology Review.

Analysis of these data is not meant to restrict people’s movements, but to offer clues as to where preventive efforts should be focused, according to Technology Review. In correspondence published in The Lancet last month (July 26), Kathryn Jacobsen of George Mason University in Virginia and her colleagues proposed implementing emerging technologies to manage responses to outbreaks like the ongoing Ebola epidemic.

“Infectious disease surveillance systems should be strengthened by adopting new data-sharing technologies,” the authors wrote in their communication. “Emerging technologies can help early warning systems, outbreak response, and communication between health-care providers, wildlife and veterinary professionals, local and national health authorities, and international health agencies.”

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