Researchers from Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School have revealed that online discussion forums, listservs, and online news outlets could be an informative source of information on disease outbreaks.
And they have even launched a real-time, automated data-gathering system called HealthMap to gather, organize and disseminate this online intelligence.
"Web-based electronic information sources can play an important role in early event detection and support situational awareness by providing current, highly local information about outbreaks, even from areas relatively invisible to traditional global public health efforts," said John Brownstein and colleagues from the HealthMap project.
However, information overload and difficulties in distinguishing "signal from noise" pose substantial barriers to fully using this information.
To overcome these problems, the researchers have created the freely accessible HealthMap Project, which they describe as a 'multistream real-time surveillance platform that continually aggregates reports on new and ongoing infectious disease outbreaks.'
These reports are organized and disseminated in a variety of ways, including creating disease maps and 'situational awareness windows.'
Brownstein and colleagues said that ultimately, the use of news media and other non-traditional sources of surveillance data can 'facilitate early outbreak detection, increase public awareness of disease outbreaks prior to their formal recognition, and provide an integrated and contextualized view of global health information.
The study is published in this week's PLoS Medicine.