Real-time communication with the public is necessary for effective public health emergency response. Online interactions can help public health practitioners and emergency management agencies connect with communities before, during and after disasters. Social media can help convey the full cycle of emergency situations: preparedness, alerts, warnings, response, recovery and community resilience.
The “Now Trending Challenge” was a 2012 contest issued by the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR). The contest was to create a web-based application using open source twitter data to find specific keywords related to diseases and natural disasters. To fulfill the contest requirements, the applications must generate a daily list of the top five trending illnesses in a selected geographic area of interest. The information collected can be sent to local and state health departments and public health practitioners, and can be used as an indicator of emerging illnesses in a population. There are two web-based applications which have been submitted to the “Now Trending Challenge.” MappyHealth and Crowdbreaks.
The winner of the contest, MappyHealth, was submitted by the American Nursing Informatics Association. MappyHealth uses twitter data which could potentially be used to predict an emerging outbreak of disease. Using twitter’s application programming interface (API), MappyHealth has analyzed almost 5 million tweets, and tracks 234 terms associated with specific diseases such as Acute Respiratory Illness using keywords like: cough, fever, chills, sore throat, muscle ache. On the website, there are examples of disease trend spikes are associated with the terms MappyHealth tracks. Overall, MappyHealth hopes to create awareness of certain diseases through their efforts of their web-based application.
The "Now Trending Challenge" also influenced Crowdbreaks, a web application developed by the Research Group at the Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics (CIDD) at Penn State University. Crowdbreaks is a crowdsourced disease surveillance system which uses keywords and trending topics from Twitter to provide geographically specific disease information through user feedback. User feedback allows the software behind Crowdbreaks to continue to refine its ability to detect disease relevant tweets. This user feedback component of Crowdbreaks is not seen in MappyHealth. According to the CIDD Research Group “At the same time, millions of people use social media to share how they feel, both good and bad. In a very real sense, it's like having millions of sensors to help us understand the health situation on the ground."
The “Now Trending Challenge” was not the only contest the ASPR created in 2012. ASPR’s Facebook Lifeline Application Challenge was an opportunity for software application developers to design new Facebook applications. The application would establish social connections in an emergency event, and increase community resilience. There were three winners of this competition: Lifeline (1st place), JAMAJIC 360 (2nd place), and AreYouOk? (3rd place).
Lifeline was created by two Brown University graduates (Evan Donahue and Erik Stayton), JAMAJIC was created by the group JAMAJIC 360 from Las Vegas (David Vinson, Erick Rodriguez, Gregg Orr, and Garth Winckler). And AreYouOk? Was created by team of eleven University of Illinois students. The objective of the Lifeline contest was to create a Facebook application individuals could use to identify friends who agreed to check on them and provide resources (like food and shelter) in the event of an emergency.