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Statisticians use social media to track foodborne illness

18 August 2015  •  Author(s): Victoria White

A biostatistician has used social media to enhance systems to track foodborne illness outbreaks.

foodborne-illness

Elaine Nsoesie, a research fellow in paediatrics at Boston Children’s Hospital, has developed a method for tracking foodborne illness and disease outbreaks using sites such as Twitter and Yelp to supplement traditional surveillance systems. Nsoesie unveiled the results during a presentation at the 2015 Joint Statistical Meetings in Seattle.

The study’s purpose was to assess whether crowdsourcing via online reviews of restaurants and other foodservice institutions can be used as a surveillance tool to augment the efforts of local public health departments. These traditional surveillance systems capture only a fraction of the estimated 48 million foodborne illness cases in the US each year, primarily because few affected individuals seek medical care or report their condition to the appropriate authorities.

Online reviews offer a unique resource for foodborne illness and disease surveillance

Nsoesie and collaborators tested their non-traditional approach to track these outbreaks. The results showed foods – for example, poultry, leafy lettuce and molluscs – implicated in foodborne illness reports on Yelp were similar to those reported in outbreak reports issued by the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Online reviews of foodservice businesses offer a unique resource for disease surveillance. Similar to notification or complaint systems, reports of foodborne illness on review sites could serve as early indicators of foodborne disease outbreaks and spur investigation by local health authorities. Information gleaned from such novel data streams could aid traditional surveillance systems in near real-time monitoring of foodborne related illnesses,” said Nsoesie.

The lack of near real-time reports of foodborne outbreaks reinforces the need for alternative data sources to supplement traditional approaches to foodborne disease surveillance, explained Nsoesie. She added Yelp.com data can be combined with additional data from other social media sites and crowdsourced websites to further improve coverage of foodborne disease reports.

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