The U.K.’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) has reportedly been systematically checking for Twitter hashtags such as #sick and #barf in order to identify potential foodborne illness outbreaks.
According to the agency’s chief scientific adviser, FSA is working with the National Health Service to monitor certain tweets via special software as a way of getting on to problems more quickly.
Guy Poppy, Ph.D., said that trials show that the information acquired through Twitter made it possible to find an outbreak of Norovirus two weeks sooner than if the information was reported in by health care providers.
As a result, he said FSA would be able to alert doctors and hospitals to expect an influx of people complaining of vomiting and diarrhea and perhaps other symptoms of foodborne illness.
In the U.S., both Twitter and Yelp are increasingly being used by public health officials to track reported foodborne illness symptoms and potentially correlate them to an outbreak. The Chicago Department of Public Health has even developed its own system called “Foodborne Chicago” to track foodborne illness complaints via tweets.
FSA plans to go even further into the so-called “Internet of Things” realm and one day monitor smart ovens and refrigerators for potential foodborne illness problems. For example, if the general public was risking Campylobacter infections by not throughly cooking chicken, the agency might respond with a targeted educational campaign.
Poppy said that the government’s use of “big data” can help detect all types of threats and protect consumers, and he denied that it was intrusive having public health officials monitor Twitter use in this way.
“Tweets are open information. By putting something like ‘#sick after eating in restaurant’ out there, you are telling the world that information,” he said.
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