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Social Media Sensors to Detect Early Warnings of Influenza at Scale

Authors: David Martín-Corral, Manuel García-Herranz, Manuel Cebrian, Esteban Moro
Publication: medRxiv 2022.11.15.22282355 LINK

Abstract: Detecting early signs of an outbreak in a viral process is challenging due to its exponential nature, yet crucial given the benefits to public health it can provide. If available, the network structure where infection happens can provide rich information about the very early stages of viral outbreaks. For example, more central nodes have been used as social network sensors in biological or informational diffusion processes to detect early contagious outbreaks. Here we aim to put together both approaches to detect early warnings of a biological viral process (influenza-like illness, ILI), using its informational epidemic coverage in public social media. We use a large social media dataset covering three years in a country. We demonstrate that it is possible to use highly central users on the platform, more precisely high out-degree users from Twitter, as sensors to detect the early warning outbreaks of ILI in the physical world without monitoring the whole population. We also investigate other behavioral and content features that distinguish those early sensors in social media beyond centrality. We find that while high centrality on Twitter is the most distinctive feature of sensors, we see that they are more likely to talk about local news, language, politics, or government than the rest of the users. Our new approach could detect a better and smaller set of social sensors for epidemic outbreaks and is more operationally efficient and privacy respectful than previous ones, not requiring the collection of vast amounts of data.


Esteban Moro

Professor at Northeastern University. Working on Complex Systems, Social Networks and Urban Science.