How social media could be usefully used to track flu outbreaks and rainfall rates

Researchers are investigating whether social media could be used to track an event or phenomenon, such as flu outbreaks and rainfall rates.

Social networks, such as Facebook and microblogging services like Twitter, have only been around for a relatively short time but in that time they have provided shapshots of real life by forming, electronically, public expression and interaction.

The research by Professor Nello Cristianini and Vasileios Lampos in the University of Bristol’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory, geo-tagged user posts on the microblogging service of Twitter as their input data to investigate two case studies.The first case study looked at levels of rainfall in a given location and time using the content of tweets.

The second case study collected regional flu-like illness rates from tweets to find out if an epidemic was emerging.The study builds on previous research that reported a methodology that used tweets to track flu-like illness rates in several UK regions.  The research also demonstrated a tool, the Flu Detector, which uses the content of Twitter to map current flu rates in several UK regions.

Professor Nello Cristianini said: “Twitter, in particular, encouraged their 200 million users worldwide to make their posts, commonly known as tweets, publicly available as well as tagged with the user’s location.  This has led to a new wave of experimentation and research using an independent stream of information.

“Our research has demonstrated a method, by using the content of Twitter, to track an event, when it occurs and the scale of it. We were able to turn geo-tagged user posts on the microblogging service of Twitter to topic-specific geolocated signals by selecting textual features that showed the content and understanding of the text.”

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