New potential (logical?) use of social media: spotting disease/illness trends ahead of time

From here:

“The big advantage of social media is you can get a lot more data, and you can get it more quickly and more economically,” said Henry Niman, a biomedical researcher and president of Pittsburgh-based Recombinomics Inc., which analyzes viral evolution and the spread of disease. “It is a matter of fine-tuning that data so you come up with results that are more reliable.”

Amen. There are a lot of possible values to social media aside from just communicating basic life information to your friends: maybe it can predict the future, maybe someday it can redefine the idea of errands, maybe it can connect you to neighbors in ways you never thought possible, and hell, we all already know about Arab Spring and the impact of Twitter therein. While there’s a confusing line between the role of users — are they ultimately the customer or the product? — clearly there are broad applications here beyond just “OMG best grilled cheese ever.” (This is tricky water for people who super-value privacy, because it does involve data mining, which means “people” — the government! — might be looking at what you post, but they’re doing it towards an end.)

There’s a semi-famous story about McHenry County (IL), where a bunch of cheerleaders — then football players — got whooping cough. Local health officials didn’t see this trend, primarily because they rely on people actually coming in to offices and giving reports, which happens at a slower pace than simply sharing it. They got out in front of it and were potentially able to save lives, since whooping cough bacteria can be fatal in infants.

Just on Google News right now, you see a variety of situations where social media has benefited health: here, here, here and here, for example. Social media is easy to mock (and in some ways, that’s deserved), but it can also do some amazing things with real-time, easy-to-accumulate data — from saving major U.S. cities during ice storms to identifying disease patterns in communities.

If you’re looking for a company that does this pretty well so far, check out HealthMap. Here’s some context on what they do:

And here’s a longer talk about their work:

Ted Bauer