People Were Talking About the Ebola Epidemic on Twitter Three Days Before Health Officials

An Ebola awareness mural in Monrovia, Liberia, in October 2014.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Twitter data can be used in economic predictions and flu trackers, and new research shows that it could have even been used to get a jump on last year’s Ebola epidemic in West Africa (which continues in Sierra Leone and Guinea).

Researchers from Columbia University School of Nursing analyzed 16,499 Ebola-related tweets sent from July 24, 2014, to Aug. 1, 2014. They found that Twitter users in Nigeria were talking about Ebola three to seven days before health officials started making public announcements about the first suspected patient.

Michelle Odlum and Sunmoo Yoon published their findings in the American Journal of Infection Control on Monday. They wrote, “Using Twitter in outbreak surveillance is immense, allowing for real-time data capture. … An expanded definition of public health outbreak surveillance is needed because social media content can be used to support and enhance existing early warning systems.”

In 2013, researchers at Northwestern used Twitter data to try to track cancer, and the social network’s usefulness for flu tracking has been studied for years now. Between all the quips and links, tweets could help give public health officials a heads up about burgeoning epidemics if they have tools for spotting the trends.