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As more and more people become connected using social media, researchers, media and public health officials naturally are increasingly interested in what their updates can tell us about the world. According to the Pew Internet and Life Project, 18% of American adults online are on Twitter with some 200 million active users globally sending out 400 million tweets every day. That amount of data is catnip for researchers interested in everything from sentiment analysis, food security or embryonic pandemics.

sentiment-analysis

When people are sharing what they’re seeing using social media, city managers and public health agencies have increasingly learned to listen to what’s happening in the hopes of responding to fires, floods, odd smells, tornados, crimes or other public emergencies more effectively.

Some of the reported results are genuinely exciting, too: according to David Kirkpatrick, the director of UN Global Pulse, Twitter data accurately predicted the cholera outbreak in Haiti two weeks earlier than official records. Kirkpatrick’s team is now examining the predictive value of millions of tweets sent in Jakarta, Indonesia for assessing food security.

There are caveats to crunching Twitter data as a proxy for what’s happening in a given region or industry. As Pew Research showed in March 2013, what’s happening on Twitter is not necessarily representative of public opinion or a representative sample of a given population.

The perils of polling Twitter are particularly worth noting for media, as New York Times interactive developer Jacob Harris demonstrated this July.

That said, there are an increasing number of projects that are exploring the potential of Twitter for socially networked transparency. In Chicago, health authorities are seeking out Chicagoans who tweet about feeling poorly and ask them to share the restaurants they ate in most recently. Chicago’s health department told the Chicago Tribune that 150 Chicagoans have been contacted since the “Foodborne Chicago” initiative began, triggering 33 restaurant inspections in the first month, some of which found health code violations.

This kind of “high touch, high engagement” human approach requires a lot of humans, however, whose time is hard to scale over an entire city.

Further to the east, a research group at the University of Rochester analyzed millions of tweets in New York City to develop a system to monitor food-poisoning outbreaks at restaurants. The research crunched 3.8 million tweets, traced 23,000 restaurant visitors and found 480 reports of likely food poisoning.

As Henry Kautz highlighted in his column on public health and social data in the New York Times, there’s considerable interest in what can be gleaned from what people are sharing online:

“Groups at Brigham Young University and the University of Iowa have done extensive work on influenza monitoring via Twitter posts. Researchers at Microsoft are helping to identify women who are at risk of severe postpartum depression by analyzing changes in their online behavior. And researchers at Cornell are mining the social media stream to gather data for urban planning and environmental conservation.”

As always, anyone making public policy decisions based upon such data will have to take into account who is represented in the data or who is not.

That’s also true in efforts like Lungisa in South Africa, too, where a project is encouraging residents to hold government accountable using Twitter and Facebook. The issues raised on social media reflect the needs of the connected, not necessarily those of the poor, or of the powerful, who have their own channels to influence policy.


We’re looking for more examples of socially networked transparency, so please keep them coming. There’s already some rich veins for inquiry that some digging is turning up. For instance, in the most recent installment of his “week in civic innovation,” David Sasaki shared two helpful resources, which in turn have many more links to various projects and initiatives:

1) The Crowdsourced International Civic, Democratic and Transparency Website List, maintained by mySociety, has a long list of global efforts.

2) This list of Transparency and Accountability Resources & Initiatives, from the Engine Room, has a more US-centric collection.

If there’s something important happening in your town, state or industry, please let us know.