Tag Archive for public health

Google Epidemiology and STDs

The term “Twitter epidemiology” is not new, but researchers have struggled to find efficient methods of tracking disease outbreaks via social media posts and web searches. This is especially vital in conditions such as sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), where stigma and embarrassment limit public sharing of symptoms even among friends. Who can blame such reticence? (As one with a ridiculous number of Facebook “friends” myself, I would think twice about revealing my cat’s ailments, let alone my own.) Unfortunately, STD’s flourish in the dark, so to speak, and the incidence of such diseases is on the rise. The specter of antibiotic resistance adds to the urgency of tracking STD outbreaks in real time before they can spread further.


While Google search trends have been followed for disease outbreaks such as flu, for instance, its use has been limited to the publicly available Google Trends data. Starting this summer however, Google began to allow researchers unrestricted access to its search data in order to facilitate the development of real time analytical tools to pinpoint outbreaks without having to wait for local public health officials to verify and report cases. It is assumed that STD information seekers – especially those in the 15-24 year old age range hit hardest by these diseases – will be more likely to use search engines to find out about their symptoms than tweet their friends about them.


This allows researchers to identify trends in searches for specific symptoms such as “vaginal discharge.” While researchers must guard against relying on a single source for data, Google provides a treasure trove for public health surveillance if methods for utilizing the data in real time prove practical. Stay tuned!

“Digital Jedis” and the Nepal Earthquake

Immediately following the massive earthquake in Nepal on Saturday, April 25, there was an outpouring of support both financial and material to help the stricken and remote countryside. The news media has featured not only the devastation, but also the heroic efforts of humanitarian and rescue workers from around the world as they pitched in to help survivors and assess the damage. Meanwhile, most of the rest of us can only watch helplessly from afar, with perhaps a monetary donation to an aid agency our only practical way to help.


[Nepal geography photo – “Nepal topo en”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Nepal_topo_en.jpg#/media/File:Nepal_topo_en.jpg]

But a new form of digital volunteer support for disaster recovery has emerged. As of Wednesday, April 29, more than 2100 micromapping “Digital Jedis” have assisted in screening over 60,000 images and tweets from affected survivors and helpers on the ground to crowdsource the creation of a plan of action for aid organizations. This virtual screening of aid requests, volunteer offers, reports of damage to infrastructure and the like serves to limit such information being lost in the chaotic aftermath of disasters. In addition, this accurate, current information can help save lives. The sorted information is mapped and sent to the aid agencies, providing real-time updates of the situation in a particular area.


[Image source: Al Jazeera Science & Technology column, 11/13/2013 – http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2013/11/interactive-mapping-damage-philippines-2013111372853666106.html]

MicroMappers is a product of the Qatar Computing Research Institute and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Its first micromapping disaster recovery project was the Pakistan earthquake in 2013. Other disasters the Digital Jedis have assisted with included the Philippines 2013 and 2014 typhoons, the Balkan flooding of May 2014, the Chilean earthquake of 2014 and the Vanatu tropical cyclone this March.

Ebola Communication Network (ECN)

For better or worse Ebola’s presence in the United States has definitely increased awareness of the hazards of ignoring infectious disease in developing countriesĀ as something that “can’t happen here.” It has also raised the profile of global public health efforts. The Health Communication Capacity Collaborative, or HC3, recently launched an online collection of Ebola resources, materials and tools for prevention and control of this deadly disease, the Ebola Communication Network (ECN).


A major focus of the ECN is on the use of social and behavior change communication to help residents, healthcare workers and community leaders know how to prevent illness, how to recognize Ebola signs and symptoms and how to care for the sick safely. There are posters, brochures and infographics available for download, as well as demographic information and professional articles for health workers. The site is responsive to mobile devices and optimized for low bandwidth situations.

The ECN allows searching by language, publication type, topic and audience. Users may also upload their own materials, which are posted after a brief review process.


The Ebola panic in the US has subsided somewhat, but the epidemic in Africa continues. The ECN may prove to be an important tool in providing useful, timely and understandable information to populations dealing with both the disease itself as well as the fear of the disease.