The focus on population health has driven the practice of Public Health for the last 200 years. It has also helped define the types of data used by public health practitioners to inform their work. In the early days of public health epidemiology, practitioners primarily used statistics mandated by law and generated by the government. These included censuses and vital statistics.
The arrival of the Internet has moved public health from paper to computers. This has led to new forms of data which can be used by public health workers, but which brings with it new challenges. One example is the use of social networks such as Twitter. The paper will examine numerous studies that have been done analyzing the “tweets” posted on Twitter. These studies have used machine learning to show that Twitter can be useful in predicting outbreaks of cholera and influenza, for example. The most outstanding feature of this is the fact that the information is in real time, in contrast to older forms of public health data.
Historical Overview – Social Media, Internet of Things, and the Future of Public Health provides a thorough look at the history of data in public health, from the early use of vital statistics to modern Big Data data mining.
From Population to the Individual – Public health has historically relied on population statistics to make its decisions about how best to improve the health of the population. With more individual data becoming available, public health works can now use more finely granular data on the individual level.
Twitter – Posts on Twitter are public and can be mined for health data. Studies have shown the ability of data mining these posts to predict disease outbreaks with less delay than current public health survey methods.
Online Searching – The volume of online keyword searches can be used to predict the health of a population performing those searches, frequently with the ability to map the health geographically based on searches.
The Internet of Things – With more and more sensors becoming connected, many with biosensing capability, public health officials will acquire the ability to monitor the health of individuals in a population, rather than the average health of a population. Some of the types of sensors discussed include blood glucose monitoring, heart monitoring, and remote visual diagnosis of melanomas.
Infodemiology and Infoveillance – The Internet has made measurable what was previously immeasurable: he distribution of health information in a population. This will allow public health workers to track health information trends in near real time. Risk factors, diseases, health conditions in a population are all in one way or the other reflected on the Internet.
Participatory Epidemiology – One aspect of “Public Health 2.0” is used to describe public health activities that are completely user-driven. Users on the internet, or through cell phones, collect and share information regarding health issues, as was done recently during the tsunami in Japan.
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