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Using blogging, tweeting, GIS maps to monitor health emergency

01 May

What a week for social media!

I’ve been doing a lot of data-gathering on the swine flu since we were alerted to the outbreak last Friday. We are a visualization center and decision-lab that happened to hold pandemic flu exercises, so while we are not public health experts, we know a thing or two about emergency planning.

Apart from talking to the media, managing new media efforts and outreach, my work involves being the eyes and ears of the Decision Theater.

A few years ago this would have taken an enormous amount or work. Today, time-crunch notwithstanding, being plugged into social media has made it easier to stay on top of things. It’s all about being connected to the sources and monitoring the monitors.

Is it live, or is it ‘public?’ Sometimes when I brief the media on a story, what I assume to be public knowledge, is not. When the WHO raises a threat level, when a state epidemiologist confirms a new case, when the governor releases a new document or the state health officials hold a web conference … all these go public as they hit the wires. But unless we have an effective monitoring mechanism, or have hired a media monitoring agency, critical data can get buried in the clutter –and chatter. I subscribe to some news services via SMS, and of course follow a few organizations, on my phone via Twitter. I can now ping a reporter using the Twitter with direct message to confirm something.

Direct from the source. I know, all this tweeting, re-tweeting, Facebooking and blog angst (some of which I have referred to) is precisely what adds to that chatter. But rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, I think that we are better off with more information, if we know how to use it well. Many who have good data are now not limited to squeezing it through the old pipes (cable) and intermediaries (wire services). They do issue press releases, but they also give us a direct feed.  And we are better off for that.

Here are a handful that do a good job of it. An expanded list is on our Decision Theater Blog, Lightbulb Moments.

The latter is worth elaborating on. HealthMap is an interesting project. The two people behind it  (John S. Brownstein, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and Clark Freifeld, a software engineer) grab several feeds and lay them out to help us make sense of all that data.

TMI? We can deselect categories in HealthMap if we so wish. In an emergency, few seem to complain about too much information. If at all, there would be an uproar had any organization  inadvertently held back some information.

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