The Department of Homeland Security is expanding its biosurveillance capabilities with a pilot program that will use data from social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter to detect pandemics and acts of bioterrorism.
Accenture is currently developing the program under a $3 million, two-year contract for DHS’s office of health affairs, and the company expects to have an initial program ready after about eight months, said John Matchette, managing director of Accenture’s public safety portfolio.
The company is creating a lexicon of health terminology to identify pertinent data. The program then will establish what the status quo looks like at various points during the year, Matchette said. “Once you’ve done that, then you begin to monitor and look for exceptional situations or deviations from normal in specific geographic regions.”
DHS already has several biosurveillance programs. For instance, the BioWatch program has about 30 sensors located throughout the country that can detect dangerous pathogens in the air.
Social media surveillance offers unique advantages when compared to BioWatch, Matchette said. “Because you’re using self reported information from millions of people, you have more points of detection, and because they’re on social media, real-time talking about what’s happening, you begin to form a broad-based picture very rapidly.”
The program will only use publicly available information, not data that is protected by privacy settings, he added.
If the pilot is successful, Machette said the government could increase its use of social media analytics. “I think in eight months when we begin to show positive benefits, you’ll see … more and more of these things.”
Additionally, there are other data sources that could be aggregated, such as emergency room records or pharmaceutical distributions from major drug chains, he said.
Accenture and DHS haven’t discussed what will happen to the program after the two-year contract is over, but the department might be able to employ its own resources.Photo Credit: iStockphoto