How Twitter could save your life

Inane chat about runny noses, or pandemic predictor?

Back in 2010 AMC set up co-ordinated “zombie attacks” in major cities around the world to promote its zombie thriller series The Walking Dead. Gaggles of blood-dripping “walkers” invaded trains and lurched around landmarks like Big Ben and The Prado Museum. Just one small scratch, or, worse, a desperate, flesh-eating bite, and you would become a zombie too – in the drama, of course.

AMC’s most popular programme now pulls in over 12 million viewers per episode and has nearly 1.5 million Twitter followers, each obsessed with the dramatic, but scarily plausible, scenario of a true life version of blockbuster films like Outbreak, Contagion or 28 Days later.

But as Twitter continually proves itself to be such an adept viral tool, the sheer number of users – which is 500 million and counting – flocking to its pages could make it a hefty ally in the fight to contain such an outbreak. Twitter, it seems, may not only be the best place to send a  meme like the walking dead  ‘viral’, but also the perfect platform for stopping a virus dead in its tracks.

Twitter users react to current events and tweets contain real-time information about their perspective and location. If Lori Grimes, for example, had been on Twitter, could word have spread faster than The Walking Dead’s zombie outbreak? And could Contagion’s MEV-1 virus have been prevented if Beth Emhoff had tweeted about her supposed cold symptoms?

These questions might read like science fiction, but Professor Simon Hay at the UK’s University of Oxford believes there is a “revolution occurring” in the amount of public health data that is available through social media, particularly from Twitter.

While scientists have traditionally used mapping techniques to track outbreaks, it is just 4 per cent of infectious diseases that have been effectively mapped. New technology is required to improve results and Twitter could provide the answer.

In fact, Twitter has already provided geo-positioned information to inform scientists about public health. A study from the University of Iowa proved that content embedded in Twitter feeds relating to the H1N1 flu outbreak in 2009 allowed the tracking of “rapidly-evolving public sentiment” and “actual disease activity”.

By using Twitter's streaming application programmer's interface (API), the study explored public sentiment from 29 April to 1 June 2009 by identifying 951,697 tweets out of 334,840,972 that matched specified search terms, such as flu, swine, influenza, H1N1 and illness.

The second phase selected 4,199,166 tweets – which conformed to certain guidelines, such as they had to be in English and originate from the US – from eight million influenza-related tweets that included relevant keywords sent between 1 October and 31 December 2009. The study found that these Twitter feeds actually predicted outbreaks one to two weeks in advance of traditional surveillance.

Scientists are currently struggling to map the current outbreak of the H7N9 avian influenza virus in China – which is considered by the World Health Organisation to be a “serious threat” (126 have been infected to date and 24 have died), despite it not spreading through people as yet – so why isn’t Twitter’s data stream being utilised?

Could it be due to the lack of Twitter users in China? According to a programmer (@ooof) on the South China Morning Post blog, the number of live active Twitter users could be as little as 18,000. If this number was more, would scientists have been better able to predict this very real threat to our society’s health?

As an online flu detector exists in the UK, which has been created by a team at the University of Bristol through identifying keywords from Twitter’s geo-located content, then couldn’t similar programs be used to identify and predict other, more serious, infections?

Twitter has come a long way since it launched, when it attracted intense criticism from naysayers questioning why they would want to tweet inane information about an erupting spot or runny nose. But, in the battle against pandemic outbreaks, it is ironically these kinds of observations that could empower Twitter to become a sophisticated tool and actually be more than just a social lifesaver in the future.

Frances Cook is a freelance energy, transport and lifestyle reporter. She has worked for NRI Digital.

Photo: Getty Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research