With ‘crowdbreaks,’ Penn State epidemiologists keep tabs on trending diseases

    Disease detectives at Penn State want to enlist “citizen epidemiologists” to help them with their work.

    Lots of us hate when whiny friends feel the need to post to Facebook or blog about it every time they sneeze or scratch a new rash. Biologist Marcel Salathé wishes more of us would turn to social media.

    “When people tweet about being sick or seeing someone who’s sick–and that’s public data–we go and grab it and put it on the map, and show other people what’s going on in their neighborhood,” said Salathé, an assistant professor at Penn State University’s Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics.

    He studies the ways illness–and health habits–move among us.

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    Salathé and colleagues are experts in disease surveillance, the art of tracking disease outbreaks.

    This spring, Penn State launched a new online health tool called “crowdbreaks.”

    It’s crowd sourcing for disease outbreaks.

    The team is beta-testing the health application and still “teaching” the system how to recognize true disease-related posts while filtering out “noise” not related to health.

    “For example, we want to know how many people have the common cold. Well, a lot of people say, ‘Yes, I do have the cold, and I have a runny nose.’ But someone else just says, ‘I had a hard day and I’m looking forward to a cold beer,’ or something like that,” Salathé said.

    Conventional disease surveillance uses public health data from state officials, doctor’s office reports, lab tests and pharmacy receipts to figure out what’s trending in the health-care world.

    Salathé said crowdbreaks won’t replace those traditional methods.

    “With the growth of social media, rather than the data just going through the health-care systems, there is something to be said about the data going directly from individuals,” he said. “Our hope is that in the future these two systems will complement each other.”

    Penn State entered its new web application into a programming contest sponsored by the U.S. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response.

    The winning team earns $21,000.

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