By Rob Starr, Content Manager, Big4.com
Although the details as far as data collection, governance and even methodology are still being worked out, forward thinking companies like Accenture know the Internet in general and social media specifically hold the key to new realms of biosurveillance. John Matchette, who leads Accenture’s Public Safety agency work, recently spoke to Big4.com about the company’s new contact with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).
“The mission here of course is to protect America’s welfare,” he said, adding that there were a broad range of health threats that could affect the country including terrorist threats and any emerging pandemics. Last Thursday, Accenture announced a $3 million, one-year contract which will aid the Office of Health Affairs (OHA) with its biosurveillance capabilities using social media analytics.
Public Health Trends
Biosurveillance is the monitoring of public health trends and unusual occurrences, relying on pre-existing, real-time health data and Accenture has been charged with creating a pilot program that will take data from social networking and social media sites to help the OHA respond to a variety of crises and emerging threats.
“What we’re looking at here is a new way to diagnose emerging health concerns in a way that’s not being done,” Matchette said adding that the developing pilot project would be an additive to existing programs. He mentioned any new biosurveillance capabilities are not being developed to replace some exiting programs like BioWatch which checks the air for anthrax and other pathogens.
Real Time Information
The new project will look at getting more real time information through the very social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and blogs that have become part of people’s everyday lives.
“We’re going to take an Accenture collaboration platform that allows you to go out and collect a lot of data and then run analytics on top of it,” Matchette said adding there were many sources of data that could be incorporated to look for emerging health threats. He also stressed the scope of the project was large and would derive trends and a baseline from millions of inputs.
“The first thing to do is establish a baseline for what normal looks like,” he told Big4.com. “Once you’ve done that, you continue to refine that by looking at what is posted on blogs and Facebook and Twitter (as well as other social media platforms.)” There are standard interfaces that can be used here.
By having people input their own information, Matchette says, deviations from this baseline and emerging trends are noticed quicker than if the same data was collected by people checking into emergency rooms with symptoms or using other more traditional methods. There are several different applications here including identifying biological attacks and even more common situations like flu outbreaks.
“It all happens in real time with standard interfaces that already exist,” he said. “This is a very special case where we’re trying to use these interfaces to enhance public safety and improve health.”
Monitor available signals
The immediate plans for the new biosurveillance pilot don’t include data collection of any kind.
“Our plans right now are not to collect data and store it,” Matchette said. “What we’re trying to do right now is monitor available signals. The exciting thing about this is the ability to have something up and running very quickly that is of value and use to the nation.”
Accenture has worked with the Department of Homeland Security since its establishment in 2001.