Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the mastermind behind the World Wide Web, presumably did not foresee the marvels his brainchild would unfold such as modern day social media. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Google Plus, LinkedIn, YouTube, ad infinitum have redefined how we exchange, interpret, and communicate ideas today—and let’s not forget how much easier it is to spiral down the abysmal collection of delightful pet videos amidst multi-tasking at work.
With blockchain systems and the Internet of Things gaining popularity, the internet as we know it, is slowly becoming both intuitive and predictive. We have barely scratched the surface of digital data. But in regards to social media, it is quickly becoming the tool of preference to investigate food poisoning outbreaks, foodborne diseases, and even food fraud—all from a remote location.
For example, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) launched a pilot in 2012 to investigate food poisoning outbreaks using Twitter as @NYCFoodborne. By collaborating with Yelp, the popular review website, and researchers at Columbia University, this online initiative gathered data across Twitter and Yelp, predominantly.
Using keyword trackers and algorithms similar to SEO (search engine optimization) and SEM (search engine marketing), the DOHMH team was able to assign cases or reports to the foodborne illness tracker and designate specific scores ranging from 0 to 1.0. A threshold was set to 0.5, triggering a response within the data collection system to prompt the team to contact the affected customers individually and interview them; this further added quality data to the information pool and helped weed out duplicates and false positives. During the study, restaurants in NYC that received multiple complaints through tweets and reviews within a 30-day timeframe were flagged for inspections and follow-up investigations.
@NYCFoodborne is a classic example of how digital data analysis can accelerate and enhance food poisoning or foodborne disease investigations. The following are some other advantages to utilizing social media data.
Better traceability systems. An investigation doesn’t have to solely rely on paper-based receipts and reservations to trace the end customer. User validation tools can authenticate a customer’s social media account. Online PR messages also show how various brands respond to food poisoning claims online.
Saves time. Digital data can be collected within seconds and it cuts down the need to manually enter information from written questionnaires and paper receipts. That being said, the outcome of the investigation is only as good as the information that gets gathered.
Cost efficient. Considerable amount of time can be saved from the data gathering process itself by developing intuitive screening algorithms. Remote interviews and questionnaires have made it possible to gather information within minutes from multiple locations at the same time. Categorizing the collected data has also gotten easier using simple labeling tools that are keyword specific and more efficient at funneling down specific data.
Social media is still evolving and now that other mediums, such as virtual reality, have made their appearance, it would be interesting to see how these new tools could one day also impact food poisoning and foodborne diseases investigations.