New Web-Based App Leverages Twitter for Real-Time Early Warning of Disease Outbreaks

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Local public health officials can use a free new Web-based application, MappyHealth, to track health concerns in real time in their communities using Twitter, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR) announces.

MappyHealth is the winning submission of 33 applicants in a developers’ challenge, “Now Trending: #Health in My Community,” sponsored by ASPR. Health officials can use data they gain through the app to complement other health surveillance systems in identifying emerging health issues and as an early warning of possible public health emergencies in a community.

The challenge grew from a request made by local health officials to ASPR for help in developing a Web-based tool that could make social media monitoring more accessible to local health departments. Studies of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic and the Haiti cholera outbreak demonstrated that social media trends can indicate disease outbreaks earlier than conventional surveillance methods. However, many Web-based apps look back after a disease outbreak, rather than attempting to identify health trends as they emerge in real time.

Early identification allows health officials to respond quickly, including advising people on how to protect their health and minimize the spread of the disease. These strategies can help the community bounce back quickly from an outbreak or a public health emergency – potentially even heading off a public health emergency such as a pandemic.

“Having real-time information available in the public domain through social media like Twitter could be revolutionary for health officials watching out for the first clues to new, emerging infectious diseases in our communities and for modernizing our public health system,” says Dr. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary for preparedness and response and a rear admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service. “We were excited to receive so many innovative submissions to our challenge because our goal is to stimulate creativity in the market so that better tools develop to improve public health surveillance locally and worldwide”

Applications submitted to the challenge were judged based on their ability to be innovative, scalable, dynamic, and user-friendly. The winning application had to use open-source Twitter data to automatically deliver a list of the top five trending illnesses over a 24-hour period in a specified geographic region and provide this information in an easily accessible Web-based environment. Health agencies can cross-reference this data with conventional health surveillance systems, build a baseline of trends, and determine emerging public health threats.

The MappyHealth team met through the ASPR Twitter challenge. In launching the Now Trending challenge, ASPR encouraged interested parties to use the hashtag #nowtrending2012 to ask questions, bounce ideas and seek out team members. Nursing informatics specialist Brian Norris of Indianapolis did so, seeking partners with skills that complemented his own in developing the application. Those tweets led to the creation of the MappyHealth team. Joining Norris was another nursing informatics specialist, Charles Boicey of Orange County, Calif., and management information systems specialist Mark Silverberg of Washington, D.C. 

The team wins a $21,000 prize for the application, which team members will present during an HHS-sponsored public forum discussing citizen-generated data. The new application will be available in the next few weeks to state, territorial, tribal and local health agencies.

The Now Trending challenge was the second public health challenge sponsored by ASPR in the past year. Through the first challenge, the ASPR Facebook Lifeline App Challenge, developers designed a new Facebook application, bReddi, that could enhance individual and community resilience by establishing social connections in advance of an emergency. The winning lifeline apps became available on Facebook June 1 to help people create and share preparedness plans and get support from friends and family in any type of emergency

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