Using Social Media to Perform Local Influenza Surveillance in an Inner-City Hospital: A Retrospective Observational Study.
BACKGROUND: Public health officials and policy makers in the United States expend significant resources at the national, state, county, and city levels to measure the rate of influenza infection. These individuals rely on influenza infection rate information to make important decisions during the course of an influenza season driving vaccination campaigns, clinical guidelines, and medical staffing. Web and social media data sources have emerged as attractive alternatives to supplement existing practices. While traditional surveillance methods take 1-2 weeks, and significant labor, to produce an infection estimate in each locale, web and social media data are available in near real-time for a broad range of locations. OBJECTIVE: The objective of this study was to analyze the efficacy of flu surveillance from combining data from the websites Google Flu Trends and HealthTweets at the local level. We considered both emergency department influenza-like illness cases and laboratory-confirmed influenza cases for a single hospital in the City of Baltimore. METHODS: This was a retrospective observational study comparing estimates of influenza activity of Google Flu Trends and Twitter to actual counts of individuals with laboratory-confirmed influenza, and counts of individuals presenting to the emergency department with influenza-like illness cases. Data were collected from November 20, 2011 through March 16, 2014. Each parameter was evaluated on the municipal, regional, and national scale. We examined the utility of social media data for tracking actual influenza infection at the municipal, state, and national levels. Specifically, we compared the efficacy of Twitter and Google Flu Trends data. RESULTS: We found that municipal-level Twitter data was more effective than regional and national data when tracking actual influenza infection rates in a Baltimore inner-city hospital. When combined, national-level Twitter and Google Flu Trends data outperformed each data source individually. In addition, influenza-like illness data at all levels of geographic granularity were best predicted by national Google Flu Trends data. CONCLUSIONS: In order to overcome sensitivity to transient events, such as the news cycle, the best-fitting Google Flu Trends model relies on a 4-week moving average, suggesting that it may also be sacrificing sensitivity to transient fluctuations in influenza infection to achieve predictive power. Implications for influenza forecasting are discussed in this report.