Your Facebook or phone can stop a disease outbreak

Thursday 25 Jan 18


Sune Lehmann Jørgensen
DTU Compute
+45 45 25 39 04
A new study, involving researchers from DTU Compute and using data from DTU students, discovers the usefulness of social media and mobile phone data in preventing diseases spreading via short-range person-to-person contacts.

Social media is often criticized for having a negative impact on our mental health or well-being, whether it's making you feel more isolated, increasingly stressed or simply more addicted. Now it seems like social media platforms could be the saving grace in the case of a disease outbreak.

“Facebook accounts and telephone records can be used to pinpoint individuals to vaccinate to stop a disease outbreak in its tracks,” says Sune Lehmann, Associate Professor at Cognitive Systems, and co-writers in the article Optimizing targeted vaccination across cyber–physical networks: an empirically based mathematical simulation study. The article was published in the scientific Journal of the Royal Society Interface in the beginning of January.

What the new study reveals
The study uses data from the SensibleDTU project data collection project, where almost one thousand students received a free smartphone in exchange for allowing researchers to monitor all their digital and physical activities anonymously. The collected SensibleDTU data has already been used in many scientific discoveries such as sleep or traffic patterns, for example.

The discovery in this new health preserving study is that people who are central in digital networks also are central in real-life human networks.

Enys Mones, previously Postdoc at DTU Compute now data scientist at Sony Mobile Communications and co-researcher on the study, explains:

“If you are a hub for your friends in the sense that you have many contacts via phone calls or on Facebook, making you a bridge between diverse communities, chances are high that you are also likely to be a bridge to connect those communities in case of an epidemic, such as influenza.

By understanding the online contacts, we can find individuals who are such central members of the population and focus-targeted counter-measures on them when there are limited resources for vaccination.”

Computer modeling
Using a computer based model, the researchers on the project then calculated that vaccinating these “central” individuals would be “almost as efficient as the most optimal (existing) vaccination strategies based on knowledge of all the real-world meetings”. It is also cheaper, as digital activity is easy to trace.

The goal of vaccination is to reduce the size of the population at risk of infection. It achieves something called “herd immunity”, whereby unvaccinated people are increasingly unlikely to meet an infectious individual.

Read the scientific article here