In a recent paper FluCast architects say with multiple data sources they produce “more accurate and robust real-time flu predictions than any other existing system.” Co-founder John Brownstein said in an interview that FluCast will eventually add data from Twitter, though it’s “taking time to get the data in order.”
While flu patients may find it therapeutic to tweet about their high fevers, pounding headaches and extreme exhaustion, people who suspect they have a sexually transmitted illness are unlikely to vent about their symptoms via social media.
“In no way shape or form is someone going to tweet, ‘I have bumps on my vulva. Do you think it’s an STI?'” said Amy Johnson, a UIC PhD candidate who’s been studying the feasibility of using search data for tracking sexually transmitted infections.
Mehta agreed: “Because STDs are so stigmatized and personal, Twitter is not going to work for that.”
Robust STD tracking systems might incorporate additional search engines such as Yahoo! and Bing as well as weekly surveillance reports from local health departments, Johnson said.
Overreliance on one source is particularly risky if it’s a private company such as Google, which could remove access at any time. Even the CDC is hedging its bets; Matthew Biggerstaff, an epidemiologist who leads flu tracking efforts there, said the national health agency is exploring whether it can measure visits to its own website as a reliable disease indicator “so we have something that’s more of a public data set.”
And it remains to be seen just how real-time data could be used by public health agencies and providers. In the coming months, the CDC will be asking state and local health departments what type of flu data they want — real-time versus three-month forecasting, for example — and how they would use it, Biggerstaff said.
“Producing it and showing that it works is different than operationalizing it,” Biggerstaff said. “It’s still new in terms of incorporating it into a public health data stream.”
Then, there’s the issue of public trust. Researchers emphasize that no one’s privacy will be violated. Even with their unprecedented data access, researchers will not be able to tell who performs a query, what their sex or ethnicity is, or even what neighborhood that person lives in, Johnson said.
“I’m not going to knock on their door and tell their wife or their husband they have a sexually transmitted infection,” Johnson said. “It’s important for people on the individual level to know it’s about community health.”
By Mary Chris Jaklevic, Kaiser Health News
Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.