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.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.