Children's will track social media to catch signs of outbreaks
Boston Children’s Hospital is building a new software program to track social media posts, Google searches and even traffic patterns for signs of outbreaks and pandemics.
“In all our interactions with technology, we leave behind bread crumbs of information, and that’s information that, if we start to tap into it and organize all that data, we can get new information about disease,” said John Brownstein, the hospital’s chief innovation officer. “If you search online for flu-related symptoms, that’s a data point we can harness. If you tweet about an illness, you’re stuck at home because you’re sick, that’s another data point.”
By tracking Google searches for flu symptoms, or monitoring Twitter for users writing about being sick, the software will be able to quickly detect outbreaks, Brownstein said.
And though Children’s Computational Epidemiology Lab has been tracking disease outbreaks for years, Brownstein said they’ve never connected all their data sources together.
“There are a lot of different data sources we were tapping into over the years and if we could build a platform that begins to integrate all this information into one view, it could really be a useful public health tool to identify issues and help with a more proactive response,” he said.
The hospital’s proposal was selected as a finalist for the Department of Homeland Security’s Hidden Signals challenge, a competition aimed at creating software that can provide public health officials with and early warning about outbreaks. Four other proposals were also selected as finalists.
“The five finalists explore new ways we can uncover emerging biothreats and we are confident they’ll inform a system that could enable city-level operators to make critical decisions,” said William N. Bryan, a DHS official, in a statement.