Health, maps and you

Gary Finnegan

Gary Finnegan

February 4th, 2014

Gary Finnegan

‘Would you share your health information for the greater good? ’


There are several sources of information on outbreaks but if we all spoke up when we had an infectious disease we could contain the spread.

This map has made a big splash online in recent weeks. It illustrates outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles, mumps, rubella, polio and pertussis drawing on a mix of newspaper reports and official data from the World Health Organisation (WHO).

You can see how serious the whooping cough outbreaks have been in North America, Western Europe’s measles problem, and rubella epidemics in Poland, Romania and Japan.

Others, like Health Map, also give you a chance to learn about ‘Outbreaks near me’ with a few simple clicks.

We’ve also written before about the pros and cons of using Google Trends to track flu and measles epidemics in real time based on search engine activity, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine is looking at ways to use social media chatter to respond to outbreaks before they get out of control. 

Each of these uses different sources of data, some more up to date than others.

Social (media) responsibility

My question is what you and I, as members of the public, can do to make this picture more complete?

If we rely on newspaper reports and official data, the chances are we will be reporting about outbreaks after they have infected people in our communities.

Trying to pick up signals in the ‘noise’ on social media is a good start but what if the general public was collectively committed to speaking up when symptoms struck?

What if any time someone has the flu or their child has measles, they post it on Facebook or Twitter with a designated hashtag (a quick way to group together information on social media networks). They could give the disease and their location: ‘Suffering #measles symptoms in #Malmo #Sweden’.

If, for privacy reasons, you would prefer not to post in your own name, a workaround could be found. Why not offer the login details to an open Twitter account where anyone can login and post anonymously.

Yes, this kind of information can be picked up from social media already but, if we all posted these details in a systematic way, it would become far more accurate.

Our reflex should be to share the warning not the disease.