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Social Media to Impact Community Health Surveillance?

A recent article on Nextgov states that The Department of Homeland Security has hired Accenture to “test technology that mines open social networks for indications of pandemics.”

The biosurveillance program, slated to last one year, will attempt to identify public health trends by examining information that people share online. The total price tag is $3 million. It’s a product of the national strategy for biosurveillance, created by the Obama Administration. According to Nextgov, the guidelines request that federal agencies try new techniques to mine data that could impact public health.
 
“Consider social media as a force multiplier that can empower individuals and communities to provide early warning and global situational awareness,” according to the guidelines.
 
At HMS, we question whether social media surveillance is a force multiplier—or simply white noise that could distract the focus from real issues. 
 
Social media posts happen in response to an issue or occurrence—after it occurs.   And after astute clinicians and public health make it known.  This makes it difficult to believe that information collected can provide valuable real-time insight into a potential outbreak.
 
It is possible, however, for public health to gain insight into the community’s reaction and level of awareness regarding health events.  It is also possible to evaluate the effectiveness of public service announcements and public health advisories.  
 
Relying heavily upon social media to drive awareness of and response to health threats overlooks the bigger picture. Social media has a place in keeping people up to date regarding their friends’ dining habits and love lives. But it can only provide limited, secondary support to discoveries already made.