Although they probably could have chosen a better name -- maybe something a little less, I dunno, Orwellian -- the idea is pretty nifty: Accenture Federal Services has received a $3 million contract from the Department of Homeland Security to develop a “biosurveillance” system that will allow the Office of Health Affairs to monitor and react to national health emergencies via social media.
According to Accenture public safety agency work lead John Matchette, the system will enable the OHA to collect and analyze information from social media platforms to better “detect and respond to potential threats to national health security.” The response capabilities will include mechanisms to inform the public about health emergencies via social media, including instructions about how to protect themselves.
The fact that this contract was granted by the DHS highlights growing concern among federal officials about the possibility of a biological attack on the U.S.
In January of this year I wrote about an article documenting the use of Twitter to track a cholera outbreak in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in January 2010. The article, “Social and News Media Enable Estimation of Epidemiological Patterns Early in the 2010 Haitian Cholera Outbreak,” published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, found that social media may be even better at tracking diseases than the established public health authorities.
According to the authors, “During infectious disease outbreaks, data collected through health institutions and official reporting structures may not be available for weeks, hindering early epidemiologic assessment. By contrast, data from informal media are typically available in near real-time and could provide earlier estimates of epidemic dynamics.”
And last year, a presentation to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta by Dr. Caitlin Reed of the LA County Department of Public Health examined the role of social media in tracking an outbreak of Legionnaire's Disease which was traced back to the Playboy Mansion. Social media played a role almost from the beginning of the outbreak, with a “cluster of respiratory illness reported by attendees via social media.” Social media was also central to the follow-up, allowing the LACDPH to send an online survey to all 715 conference attendees.