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Such ideas carry privacy concerns, which have yet to be resolved. Tweets are public information; still, Kass-Hout says, public health officials will have to be careful about respecting privacy as they figure out how to use information gleaned from them.
Another goal is to create ways for social media users to benefit directly from aggregated data — to be able to look up disease rates in their neighborhood, even to compare cases of food poisoning in order to trace them to a particular restaurant. Web sites are already popping up to provide this service; Greg St. Clair, whose day job is in software quality assurance for medical companies, created one of them, GermTrax.com, after a bad illness made him wish there were a way to figure out where he’d gotten sick. At first he simply asked users to input their own data; when there wasn’t enough, he started importing information from social media sites.
"We’re using social media to leverage the data," says St. Clair, who never did figure out where he’d gotten sick. "But we’re also giving that information back to the public."
That is the same reason why Dredze and his colleagues recently released their findings on improved algorithms for tracking the flu.
"Normally we wouldn’t publish material like this until we’d had a chance to really analyze what’s happened, the whole flu season. But we think this technology can be beneficial right now in the middle of the epidemic."
Jarvis has written for Rolling Stone, the Atlantic and the American Prospect, among others. And, of course, you can follow her on Twitter.
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