Food-Borne Illness: Leveraging Social Media to Improve Public Health

The Food-Borne Illness Project— under the leadership of the WIDE Research Center —is developing a tool that uses social media bots to detect self-reported instances of food-borne illness made through common social media channels (i.e., tweets, Facebook status updates, etc.). This data is then compiled and arranged into a dashboard view that is shared with local health department officials. Based on the patterns they see in the data, these experts can then decide how best to respond to the outbreak.

This project seeks to counter the inefficiency of the current food-borne illness detection process. Presently, the only way health officials are alerted to outbreaks of food-borne illness is through hospitalization records. The problem here is that by the time there are enough individual reports to warrant declaring an outbreak, it is too late to contain or do anything but allow it to run its course, leaving vulnerable populations at risk. Also, for every reported case of food-borne illness, and estimated twenty-eight cases go unreported, leaving health officials with either vague or dramatically underestimated data by which to determine the spread and danger of a food-borne illness outbreak.

Leveraging the power of social networks to gather information about potential food-borne illness outbreaks and shaping information views that communicate the spread and severity of that outbreak to local health officials presents one aspect of the unique role the humanities can play in the public health sector. As WIDE @ MATRIX continues to develop this project, we look forward to ways in which this methodological framework can be applied to other areas of humanistic inquiry.