Last Night A Smartphone Saved My Life

By Leonard Doyle

SOCIAL media enthusiasts love making annoying, unverifiable claims about their tweets, likes and follows. The biggest offenders have a peculiarly anti-social tic of looking down at their smartphones rather than looking you in the eye.

On CNN, Al Jazeera, and even the venerable BBC, hucksters peddle social media as the solution to world poverty, gender based violence, and trafficking and heavens forfend, Climate Change. Excitable, far-away experts have an annoying tendency to make exaggerated claims.

That said, there are very interesting things happening in the field of public health and social media. The rapid spread of smart phones among the ‘bottom billion’ means that there is an ever increasing flow of data to underpin public health decision making.

Take a look at this interesting animation from the UN’s Global Pulse lab in Jakarta - the social media capital of the world - to see how monitoring huge volumes of social media can lead to rapid interventions to head off disaster.

One of the gurus in this arena is my friend Patrick Meier, currently Director of Social Innovation at the Qatar Foundation. Patrick is a true international thought-leader whose iRevolution blog has a cumulative audience of a million readers.  

He says: “Public health experts are really operating at the cutting-edge and their insights are proving important to the broader humanitarian technology community.” You can watch his keynote address to Harvard University’s Digital Disease Detection (DDD) conference. There are some fascinating videos available on such topics as “Participatory Surveillance,” “Monitoring Rumors,” “Twitter and Disease Detection,” “Search Query Surveillance,” “Open Source Surveillance,” “Mobile Disease Detection,” etc.

To paraphrase the monster disco hit from 1982 “Last Night a DJ Saved My life” there is some truth to the notion that Twitter can save a life, but not perhaps  deliver world peace or rid the planet of its social ills. It’s not the tweet that counts but the data.

Maybe those annoying social media fanatics have a point after all.

The evidence is now clear that Twitter can be used to monitor epidemics. The fact is that today disease and outbreak data gets disseminated not only through online announcements by government agencies, but through informal channels such as social networking sites, blogs, chat rooms, Web searches, local news media and crowdsourcing platforms. It’s self-evident that big data streams can decrease the time between an outbreak and formal recognition of an outbreak, allowing for a rapid response to head off a public health disaster.

The Journal of Medical Internet Research looked into Twitter and public health and said: “People’s daily use of technology creates “digital breadcrumbs—tiny records of [their] daily experiences” that, when mined and analyzed, can provide insight into health behavior and health outcomes. Traditional behavioral assessments rely on self-report or observation, but increased use of mobile communication devices linked to the Internet and social media applications (apps) are creating unprecedented opportunities for collecting real-time health data and delivering health innovations.”

Leonard Doyle is the head of Online Communications for IOM