As you might expect, immediately following a disaster, there is an overwhelming amount of information and misinformation buzzing around about the event, its aftermath, the immediate impacts, and long-term effects. This information pours out from big new organizations, government agencies, non-government organizations, community leaders, and individuals alike. In assessing the situation and deciding how to respond to it, it is not just responders, but also the public, who need to wade through this information overload and figure which sources are useful and which aren’t. To protect health and save lives, we have to integrate and analyze these multiple data sources incredibly fast.
Social Media to the Rescue?
Adding to the fray now is social media. During recent disasters, we've seen and read stories about people being rescued by Tweeting and so on, but the usefulness of social media in public health emergencies goes beyond the anecdotes. Epidemiology research actually shows that social media and news media sources can indicate disease outbreaks even before traditional formal surveillance systems. In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) uses informal information sources to aid in many of their outbreak investigations. It’s common knowledge that people use Google and other internet search tools to research symptoms when a family member or friend is sick. Taking it a step further, an uptick in these searches may indicate the emergence of a disease, giving us early indicators of new and emerging disease outbreaks.
Taming the Information Flow
The HHS Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response wants to standardize how all that information is converted into actionable knowledge and create a collaborative culture that helps public health and medical decision-makers and responders across the nation. To make this happen, we are looking for private industry, government agencies, academic institutions, non-profit organizations, and just regular every day people to participate in a series of discussion forums.
The forums will help us identify innovative ways to utilize new types of information during a public health response–so everyone is better informed, better prepared, and better able to respond fast to protect health and maybe even save a life. Ultimately, the question we’re asking is this: how do we efficiently and effectively manage large volumes of internal and external disparate data sources necessary for situational awareness and rapid decision support, as well as discover new indicators and warnings of events of public health significance?