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Social Media Apps Use Twitter to Track Illness Outbreaks

The opportunity to use social media platforms to report and track foodborne illnesses is becoming increasingly feasible as more and more people use social media to discuss the ins and outs of daily life.

In April, a few volunteer developers in Chicago launched an app called Foodborne Chicago, which aims to facilitate a connection between the Chicago Department of Public Health and individuals who may have been affected by a foodborne illness.

The app searches Twitter for keywords that may be related to a foodborne illness, and a team of developers responds to relevant tweets by encouraging affected individuals to use an online interface to file a simple food poisoning report.

The complaint forms are connected to the city’s Open311 service, which means that each report is issued a tracking number to help the affected person and the city health department keep in touch and up to date on the status of the complaint as time passes.

More than 70 complaints have been submitted since Foodborne Chicago’s April launch, but not all submissions were driven through Twitter interactions.

“Outside of Twitter, a lot of people are finding this form randomly as a way of logging an incident of food poisoning,” said Cory Nissen, one of the app’s developers.

Nissen and Joe Olson, another developer behind the project, emphasized that a receptive and open city health department is needed to get a project such as Foodborne Chicago off the ground.

“Getting [the local health department’s] cooperation is a big challenge,” Olson said. “It’s a huge barrier, but other than that, the technology is fairly easy to replicate in another city, and the costs are pretty low to implement it.”

The team hopes their data can be used to more appropriately schedule restaurant inspections in a city pressed for both resources and time. They are currently working to improve the app’s rate of correctly reaching out to people who mention a possible foodborne illness over Twitter.

“We are not giving 100-percent return on that, and we want to know why,” Olson said.

Many keywords related to foodborne illnesses may actually have nothing to do with an illness, so it can be hard to sift through all the information on Twitter and pull out relevant information. Foodborne Chicago has been specifically designed to filter information that is not applicable, and the app has become smarter over time, the developers say.

But Foodborne Chicago isn’t the only technology integrating health investigators and social media. Researchers at the University of Rochester recently developed a somewhat similar technology called nEmesis, which uses location-based Twitter data to find people who have reported symptoms of food poisoning following a restaurant visit.

The tool has only been utilized as a research project thus far, but, during its testing phase, it found 480 reports of possible food poisoning among 3.8 million tweets and identified a correlation between local health department public inspection data and the cases it had identified.

To be effective, nEmesis strongly relies on location data. Once a tweet is determined to be important, the technology will track the individual’s tweets for an additional 72 hours in order to capture further information that may be help to identify the presence of an illness. Researchers behind the project hope that one day the technology may complement other methods for monitoring food safety such as restaurant inspections.

“If this can be developed appropriately, nEmesis could be a nice example of how crowd-sourced computational epidemiology will look in the future,” said Vincent Silenzio, a co-author of the nEmesis project and a professor at University of Rochester.

Silenzio added that the tool could also be used by restaurants looking to monitor themselves and also by health professionals interested in estimating risk for a specific individual in real time.

David Steigman, health communications specialist at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, said that apps designed to track foodborne illnesses hold promise as early warning systems for possible illnesses and outbreaks. But as this type of technology continues to grow and mature, many challenges still exist such as accurately filtering and identifying Twitter and other social media platforms for correct keywords.

“While these apps will never replace established outbreak response functions such as clinical identification of a pathogen or traceback investigations to identify an outbreak source, they may in the future play a significant role in outbreak surveillance,” Steigman said.

© Food Safety News