This past weekend as the news of the Asiana Airlines broke and people started scrambling for information, it was a tweet from David Eun, a Samsung executive who was a passenger on the flight that brought the first glimpse of what was happening at San Francisco Airport. He walked away from the plane and then tweeted updates and photos to the thousands of followers he has who then retweeted it with the rest of the world. His updates had reached millions of Twitter users before TV stations did. How truly amazing is that?  This is just one way social media is revolutionizing the way we discover information. Imagine that kind of power and immediacy in public health!

While the potential for social media in public health is still being explored, there are many developments that excite us about this new media! Among them is using the public information social media users share on a daily basis to track diseases. We learned that the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS) saw potential in looking to social media for insight in disease prevention and control.Last year, the DHS embarked on a yearlong journey in search of disease related public data in social media. The “bio-surveillance” program will try to pinpoint disease outbreaks by merely monitoring what is being said on social media to spot public health trends. In light of the recent online surveillance scandals it is reassuring to see that personal data will be safeguarded!

The DHS is not alone, and has well founded reasons to invest in social media. Experts observed that on these social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter for example, it is possible to see where sickness and disease outbreaks are occurring in regards to what users are posting. Several studies have shown that social media can in fact accurately track disease, and with a platform designed for exactly this matter it could become even easier to anticipate outbreaks and rising illnesses.

Private companies like Sickweather and Veratec already make use of social media in tracking disease trends. In 2009 Veratec, a Seattle-based biosurveillance start-up, claimed that they picked up the on the swine flu outbreak in Mexico before the Mexican authorities declared a problem. They did so by monitoring the chatter on Twitter and blogs and combining it with official reports.

While the year deadline hasn’t expired, we are eager to learn what will come of this and we will update you on the findings when it does. What is one use of social media in public health that really excites you? Comment below and share them with us!