When your food bites back, Twit­ter track­ers will know

Modern Healthcare - - OUTLIERS / ASIDES & INSIDES -

Pub­lic health de­part­ments can add an­other tool to their arse­nal in track­ing food poi­son­ing: Twit­ter.

Given that peo­ple may choose to tweet about their un­for­tu­nate food en­coun­ters, re­searchers can pin­point—us­ing GPS in­for­ma­tion em­bed­ded in tweets sent from cell­phones—where peo­ple are post­ing about such ex­pe­ri­ences and bet­ter mon­i­tor them.

Henry Kautz, chair­man of the com­puter science depart­ment at the Univer­sity of Rochester in New York, came up with the idea along with stu­dents. As part of a re­search pro­ject, Kautz and his stu­dents an­a­lyzed tweets from mil­lions of cell­phone users in the New York City area to de­velop a mon­i­tor­ing sys­tem. Al­go­rithms the group cre­ated can search for tweets on a given topic with amaz­ing ac­cu­racy. In ad­di­tion, us­ing those GPS co­or­di­nates, the team was able to find tweets sent from restau­rants with 97% ac­cu­racy. Once a user is iden­ti­fied as hav­ing posted from a restau­rant, their tweets are mon­i­tored for 72 hours to see if there are posts re­lated to food poi­son­ing symp­toms, such as di­ar­rhea and nau­sea.

Dur­ing a four-month pe­riod, Kautz and his team col­lected 3.8 mil­lion tweets, traced to 23,000 restau­rant vis­i­tors and found 480 likely re­ports of food poi­son­ing.

And there are other ef­forts to track such out­breaks us­ing so­cial me­dia.

In April, the Smart Chicago Col­lab­o­ra­tive launched an ini­tia­tive that searches Twit­ter for posts that in­clude terms such as “food poi­son­ing” posted by peo­ple in the Windy City, ac­cord­ing to the Chicago Tri­bune. Vol­un­teers then con­tact those peo­ple and ask them to com­plete a form that goes to the Chicago Depart­ment of Pub­lic Health.

Since the pro­gram be­gan, more than 150 Chicagoans have been con­tacted, and in the first month, 33 restau­rant in­spec­tions were con­ducted, some of which un­cov­ered vi­o­la­tions.

Twit­ter’s lat­est trick is help­ing track cases of

food poi­son­ing.

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