Chil­dren's will track so­cial me­dia to catch signs of out­breaks

Boston Herald - - OPINION - By JOR­DAN GRA­HAM — jor­dan.gra­ham@boston­her­ald.com

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.

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