Shortly after the 2010 earthquake and hurricane that struck the country, Haiti was (and is) deeply immersed in an outbreak of cholera. Amazingly, social networks accurately tracked the spread of the disease, faster and more accurately than traditional tracking methods. As Rumi Chunara of Harvard Medical School details in CHE:
The social media matched the official reports very closely right at the start of the outbreak, in October 2010, and right after another surge when the hurricane hit, in early November. But the reports were ahead of the official records by two weeks. And with Twitter in particular, they identified the geographic locations of the cases “because a lot of people were Tweeting from their phones, right where they saw patients” in villages, Ms. Chunara said. Not all cholera patients go to hospitals to be counted officially, she noted.
It’s safe to assume that tracking a disease by social media alone wouldn’t be perfect, and further studies will be required to prove that this is a reliable method by which to base the distribution of medicine and supplies. Even a few days advantage can make a huge difference in an outbreak like this, though. By tracking real-time data, patients could be located and catalogued before they even saw a doctor.
I’m fascinated by the blossoming uses of geographic information coming out of Twitter’s API. Just this week, these infographics by Eric Fischer showed up on FastCo.Design:
You can practically re-draw traditional maps based on the density and geography of geotagged tweets. The possibilities for real-time information tracking seem endless (for good and evil). Any ideas?
(via The Chronicle of Higher Education, photo by AP)