HEALTHY LIVING
01/24/2013 11:54 pm ET

Twitter Could Be Useful In Tracking Disease Outbreaks, Study Suggests

Talk about going viral.

New research from Brigham Young University suggests that Twitter might actually aid health officials in locating potentially troublesome outbreaks by using the social media site's GPS feature.

"One of the things this paper shows is that the distribution of tweets is about the same as the distribution of the population so we get a good representation of the country," study researcher Christophe Giraud-Carrier, a professor at the university, said in a statement. "That’s another nice validity point especially if you’re going to look at things like diseases spreading."

Giraud-Carrier conducted the study with the help of his computer science students and the findings were published in the Journal Of Medical Research. Ultimately, they examined about 24 million tweets from 10 million different users. They found that only 2 percent of tweets included the GPS information, and only about 15 percent of the Twitter profiles had accurate location information. However, researchers found that for the majority of the time, the location that the Twitter user said he or she was at in the profile also matched up with the location the GPS said they were at.

The researchers examined the frequencies of the tweets, as well as the content of the tweets to see if the Twitter users talked about any symptoms.

"The first step is to look for posts about symptoms tied to actual location indicators and start to plot points on a map," explains Scott Burton, a graduate student at the university and the lead author of the study. "You could also look to see if people are talking about actual diagnoses versus self-reported symptoms, such as 'The doctor says I have the flu.'"

This is certainly not the first time the Web has aided in the tracking of disease. For example, this flu season, Google Flu Trends has come in handy to show where flu activity is occurring.

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