Public health departments can add another tool to their arsenal in tracking food poisoning: Twitter.
Given that people may choose to tweet about their unfortunate food encounters, researchers can pinpoint—using GPS information embedded in tweets sent from cellphones—where people are posting about such experiences and better monitor them.
Henry Kautz, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Rochester in New York, came up with the idea along with students. As part of a research project, Kautz and his students analyzed tweets from millions of cellphone users in the New York City area to develop a monitoring system. Algorithms the group created can search for tweets on a given topic with amazing accuracy. In addition, using those GPS coordinates, the team was able to find tweets sent from restaurants with 97% accuracy. Once a user is identified as having posted from a restaurant, their tweets are monitored for 72 hours to see if there are posts related to food poisoning symptoms, such as diarrhea and nausea.
During a four-month period, Kautz and his team collected 3.8 million tweets, traced to 23,000 restaurant visitors and found 480 likely reports of food poisoning.
And there are other efforts to track such outbreaks using social media. In April, the Smart Chicago Collaborative launched an initiative that searches Twitter for posts that include terms such as “food poisoning” posted by people in the Windy City, according to the Chicago Tribune. Volunteers then contact those people and ask them to complete a form that goes to the Chicago Department of Public Health.
Since the program began, more than 150 Chicagoans have been contacted, and in the first month, 33 restaurant inspections were conducted, some of which uncovered violations.
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