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Tracking the flu in 140 characters

New York City, USA - November, 7 2013: Banner on the New York Stock Exchange marking Twitters IPO in Lower Manhattan on November 7, 2013.


Researchers are using twitter updates to track the spread of flu.

Northeastern University’s Alessandro Vespignani and his team used the popular social media platform to develop a computational tool capable of tracking seasonal flu in real time. It outperformed traditional systems pinpointing the progress of the disease weeks in advance. This would enable public health organisations to promote the adoption of preventative measures like vaccines and better hygiene.

Vespignani’s model demonstrated it to could gauge when peak flu would hit and how how bad it would be six weeks in advance, with an accuracy of between 70% and 90%.

“We were not looking for the number of people who were sick because Twitter will not tell you that. What we wanted to know was: Do we have more flu at this point in time in Texas or in New Jersey, in Seattle or in San Francisco? Twitter, which includes GPS locations, is a proxy for that. By looking at how many people were tweeting about their symptoms or how miserable they were because of the flu, we were able to get a relative weight in each of those areas of the U.S,” explained Vespignani.


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