HHS Wants to Mine Social Media During Health Emergencies

Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com

A proposed tool could alert the agency when hospitals are being evacuated or when a disease has spread.

The Health and Human Services Department’s emergency management office is considering buying a social media mining tool to help it assess public health threats during natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other health emergencies, contracting documents show.

The proposed tool would complement traditional data analysis the office already uses to spot, analyze and respond to health emergencies, according to the sources sought notice posted on Tuesday.

The department is asking possible vendors to show their tools’ value by demonstrating how they could have alerted officials to which hospitals were being evacuated during Superstorm Sandy or how they could spot a change in the social media conversation that might suggest an outbreak of Avian Flu or Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, known as MERS.

Academic researchers have used Twitter mining to produce more timely data on flu outbreaks and the spread of flu than the Centers for Disease Control’s flu reports.

“Social media and open source data analytics play an important role in filling gaps in traditional data collection and help our office provide insights to decision makers to aid them in making informed decisions to protect the health and welfare of impacted populations during emergencies,” the document states.

A sources sought notice means the department is merely assessing the quality of available technology and hasn’t committed to buying any new technology or services.

The proposed tool would include access to Twitter’s full “firehose,” meaning the department would have near-real time access to 100 percent of tweets that fall into certain pre-selected categories. It would also include five years of historical tweets and the ability to monitor tweets about selected public health issues and be alerted to any changes in their tone or frequency.

It would also include the ability to parse tweets geographically to at least the state level and to export analysis into graphs and charts. 

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(Image via Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock.com)

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