Tracking and Graphing Awareness of Swine Flu with Twitter

By Timothy M. O'Brien
April 25, 2009 | Comments: 7

Update (4/27 2:30PM): Read this story for updated number. The graphs in this story are from yesterday, and there has been significant growth in the Twist graph and the followers for @CDCemergency.

Update (4/27 10AM): This story was a follow up to an earlier story from Saturday pointing people at the @CDCemergency Tweet stream. Since this was published, various people have attacked Twitter as a reliable source of information during a public health crisis. I respond to Morozov's Foreign Policy piece in this article..

The Swine Flu outbreak took one step closer to becoming an official "pandemic" today, and the story seemed to break for the general public today. The CDC is providing updates via @CDCemergency, and here's a tweet from approximately 10:00 PM (CST):

CDC-takecare.png

What a week for Twitter to become an important avenue for the dissemination of public health data: amid all the talk about Oprah on Twitter, CNN and Asthon Kutcher engaged in a contest for followers, a site that many once considered an unreliable toy is now being used to distribute critical real-time statistics about a developing health issues that could impact the entire world. Twitter has just become critical national infrastructure in the US Government's public health infrastructure.

Graphing Public Awareness with Twist

While Twitter is significantly more mainstream than it was just a month ago, I'm sure it still has adoption rates in the single digits. Nevertheless, I do believe that it is a representative sample of the American population. Because Twitter is an open platform for third-party data analysis tools, there is a good opportunity to use it to track trends about ongoing discussions. Twist is a service which can generate graphs of specific terms over time and show you the percentage of tweets that include them.

swine-mentions.png

This graph shows mentions of the word "swine" over time. This graphs shows us that "swine" reached an initial plateau of 0.26% of tweets Friday at 4 PM. Today it peaked at about 0.94% of all tweets at 4 PM (CST).

CDC Followers via Twitterholic

The CDCemergency account has approximately 5652 followers when I wrote this article. This is an increase of +2592 from yesterday's follower count of 3060. This is the first big spike in the CDCemergency subscriber numbers, if you look at the historical follower count on Twitterholic you will see that CDCemergency had 639 on 2/23 and has been experiencing linear growth between then and 5/24.

cdc-followers.png

The Twitterholic graph shown above doesn't show today's ~84% increase in twitter followers.

@tobrien: wash your hands


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7 Comments

Just a thought, but most of the nation doesn't use, and hasn't even heard of "tweets" and Twitter. Granted, you're getting data of sorts, from tech-savvy, internet aware, young(ish) folks across the country. But how relevant is that? And how many of these twits, I mean "tweets" are just talking about the same thing? But hey, it's a start!

Agree w. Mike. The graphs are tracking chatter about the outbreak. Much more useful and interesting would be a feed of stats about the outbreak itself: number of new confirmed incidents etc. Annotating such a feed with information about mitigation activities (quarantine, restriction of public gatherings, etc.) would help us understand how diseases spread and what countermeasures are effective.

In its defense, I think those comments are unfair. I think these graphs are really cool, especially the first one. Lots of people know about Twitter! I'm not sure how old you are, Mike, but if you've never even heard about Twitter, I'd say you are unsually internet unaware.
Yes, they are tracking "chatter", but isn't that the point of Twist? To see what people are talking about? I think its interesting to see how the mention of swine flu correlates with national/world events. Granted, the graphs are relatively undated now, considering they were made at the time there were eleven cases of swine flu and there are currently 109 cases and 1 death, but still, its cool.
:)

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Agree w. Mike. The graphs are tracking chatter about the outbreak. Much more useful and interesting would be a feed of stats about the outbreak itself: number of new confirmed incidents etc. Annotating such a feed with information about mitigation activities (quarantine, restriction of public gatherings, etc.) would help us understand how diseases spread and what countermeasures are effective.

In its defense, I think those comments are unfair. I think these graphs are really cool, especially the first one. Lots of people know about Twitter! I'm not sure how old you are, Mike, but if you've never even heard about Twitter, I'd say you are unsually internet unaware.
Yes, they are tracking "chatter", but isn't that the point of Twist? To see what people are talking about? I think its interesting to see how the mention of swine flu correlates with national/world events. Granted, the graphs are relatively undated now, considering they were made at the time there were eleven cases of swine flu and there are currently 109 cases and 1 death, but still, its cool.
:)

no graphs blog

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