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
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What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.