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Using Twitter to Track Infectious Diseases

Sickweather culls Facebook and Twitter for mentions of the flu, allergies, and 22 other symptoms and illnesses.

Twitter is well on its way to replacing many old-fashioned services, including morning newspapers, TV criticism, and maybe even investment advisers. Is there any chance that it could replace traditional epidemiology too? Probably not, but Graham Dodge, the founder of Sickweather, is giving disease-tracking specialists a run for their money.

Dodge thinks that social media is one of the best tools we have for tracking the spread of infectious diseases. Sickweather isn’t the first site to use the internet for epidemiological purposes—Google, for instance, tracks flu trends—but it’s the first to cull Facebook and Twitter for mentions of the flu, allergies, and 22 other symptoms and illnesses. You can follow the spread of diseases on a map, or just find out which illnesses are trending in your community. Dodge has already made some fascinating observations based on the data; illnesses in Indianapolis, for instance, more than doubled during the Super Bowl earlier this year (though in fairness, some people kind of saw that one coming).

But Sickweather wants to be more than just a resource for health-concerned consumers. Dodge believes it can be used to predict disease outbreaks before they happen, telling Mashable that if he’s able to factor in event schedules, travel and weather patterns, and environmental data, social media can help tell us when and where disease will strike, far faster than traditional methods can. That’s why Sickweather is entering a government-sponsored competition to develop an app that uses Twitter to warn us about up-and-coming public health issues. There’s a $21,000 prize involved.

So next time you get sick, think about telling all of your Twitter followers what’s wrong with you. It might seem a little narcissistic, but that's par for the course on Twitter, and believe it or not, you’ll be doing a public service.

Photo via Sickweather

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