The American Statistical Association reports the growing popularity and use of social media around the world is presenting new opportunities for statisticians to glean insightful information from the infinite stream of posts, tweets and other online communications that will help improve public safety.
Two such examples–one that enhances systems to track foodborne illness outbreaks and another designed to improve disaster-response activities–were presented this week at the 2015 Joint Statistical Meetings (JSM 2015) in Seattle.
In a presentation titled “Digital Surveillance of Foodborne Illnesses and Outbreaks”, biostatistician Elaine Nsoesie unveiled a method for tracking foodborne illness and disease outbreaks using social media sites such as Twitter and business review sites such as Yelp to supplement traditional surveillance systems. Nsoesie is a research fellow in pediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital.
The study’s purpose was to assess whether crowdsourcing via online reviews of restaurants and other foodservice institutions can be used as a surveillance tool to augment the efforts of local public health departments. These traditional surveillance systems capture only a fraction of the estimated 48 million foodborne illness cases in the country each year, primarily because few affected individuals seek medical care or report their condition to the appropriate authorities.
Nsoesie and collaborators tested their nontraditional approach to track these outbreaks. The results showed foods–for example, poultry, leafy lettuce and mollusks–implicated in foodborne illness reports on Yelp were similar to those reported in outbreak reports issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Online reviews of foodservice businesses offer a unique resource for disease surveillance. Similar to notification or complaint systems, reports of foodborne illness on review sites could serve as early indicators of foodborne disease outbreaks and spur investigation by local health authorities. Information gleaned from such novel data streams could aid traditional surveillance systems in near real-time monitoring of foodborne related illnesses,” said Nsoesie.
The lack of near real-time reports of foodborne outbreaks reinforces the need for alternative data sources to supplement traditional approaches to foodborne disease surveillance, explained Nsoesie. She added Yelp.com data can be combined with additional data from other social media sites and crowdsourced websites to further improve coverage of foodborne disease reports.