Tweets from sick people 'could help predict illness outbreaks across UK'

Tweets from people about feeling poorly have been used to create an effective early warning system for outbreaks of illnesses such as norovirus, the Food Standards Agency's chief scientist has revealed.

And the system could be used to help hospitals and healthcare providers prepare for an influx of patients.

A project by the watchdog tracked hashtags relating to illness after eating and then used special software to analyse spikes in where and how the same words were used.

The strategy, which has already won an award in technological innovation, detected "several" UK norovirus outbreaks up to two weeks before Public Health England, according to Professor Guy Poppy.

"Twitter could be a good way of picking up early indications of issues surrounding food," he said during a briefing given at the Wellcome Collection in London today. "We can use it to provide a causal link between people tweeting and the outbreaks happening.

"The next stage is to start predicting outbreaks and then working with organisations such as the NHS towards what we can do about that.

"This can help prepare hospitals and we are working with PhD students to explore what else we might be able to use the information for in terms of food and business."

The Food Standards Agency is the government body responsible for monitoring food safety and hygiene across the UK.

Prof Poppy added that using "big data" generated by social media searches could give an insight into people's eating and cooking habits in the home to help the organisation develop food safety and hygiene guidelines.

For example, he said: "It is important to know what food appliances people are using. Cookers that cook at different temperatures will affect food safety.

"This project has been a fascinating learning curve into who the consumer is."