~ Contributed by Susan Quinn ~
I live in North Texas. The summer months are hot, and we typically see a surge in the number of creepy crawlies and flying insects…especially mosquitos. This year was different. This year those mosquitos carried West Nile virus. As of this writing, the virus has killed over 200 people, and infected thousands more. A few days ago, the first case was reported to have spread all the way to Maine.
The spread of West Nile virus in the United States
Scientists and government agencies are struggling to determine how the virus spreads over long distances and whether it is related to a mild weather or global warming. In the meantime, local officials turned to social media, as well as traditional media, to remind the public to eliminate the standing water that is the mosquitos’ breeding ground.
Officials also used social media channels to tell the public when overhead spraying would take place…neighborhood by neighborhood. Social media turned into a better source of this information, as plans changed by the minute because of weather conditions. Individual citizens relied on social media, resulting in hundreds of thousands of tweets about the virus. They communicated what was happening in their neighborhood, and whether a family member had contracted the disease. They shared details of their treatment options and how the disease was progressing. They expressed fear about the long range impact of the overhead spraying on their children’s’ health. They also asked for, shared, and received information on what they needed to do to stay safe.
It is now December. The weather is turning cooler here in North Texas, and the insect populations have started to decrease. But we wait and wonder what next years’ warm weather brings and how we can do a better job of protecting our children and the elderly. The officials tell us that our best hope is for a good freeze this winter.
Now, imagine a world where scientists could use social media data to detect early warnings of local disease outbreaks, predict their spread, and put preventative measures in place to save lives. Imagine if they could relate what is happening in social media to other data and better predict events. That is exactly what many government agencies are looking to do by using text analytics to monitor social media discussion. This article titled "Canary in a data mine: How analytics detects early signs of bio threats" is just one example of how SAS is working with government entities to analyze social media data.
Most of us are familiar by now, that businesses analyze social media to better understand what consumers are saying about their brand. Social media is a valuable source of data because individuals discuss emerging events, create and share content and opinions, and openly discuss what is happening in their daily lives. This organic spread and growth of information can provide tremendous insights about our world and its people. And when it is carefully analyzed, and responsibly used…it can be used to improve the human condition.
National and local governments are realizing that by listening to social media, they can better serve their constituents and better accomplish their missions. In fact, compared to traditional sources information, social media provides a near real time source of ground information, which enables these organizations to more quickly get resources in place to better manage emerging events.
National governments can listen to social media to get early warning of disease outbreaks, help fight terrorism, counter drug-trafficking, and monitor the marketplace for fraud. They can use social data for more accurate situational analysis to detect geographic micro-spots where natural disasters have had the most impact or where refugees have fled due to human violence… and therefore they can more effectively deploy humanitarian aid to vulnerable populations. At a more macro level, they can use social data to better predict future economic conditions and take proactive actions to minimize population hardships.
Local governments can monitor for signs of riots or crime, and prevent violence. For example, the New York Police Department has found that they can combat teen violence fueled by insults and dares traded on social media. Gang members will openly boast on in social media, their intent to encroach on another gangs turf or “diss” another gang member. And now, the NYPD monitors those tweets and uses the information to deploy resources and curb that violence.
As I think about how government are using text analytics on social media, I realize how different this world is from the one I come from. You see, I am from the commercial business world. And in that world I have heard business colleagues use the phrase, “Hey, we are not saving babies here”. This is usually said in an attempt to put a stressful business problem in perspective.
Over the past year, my colleagues and I have had the opportunity to work with many government agencies. And we have seen that the same great solutions that SAS has to solve business problems can also be deployed by those organizations whose missions really do encompass improving the lives of people… and in effect 'save babies'. I think it is one of the many exciting, interesting, and rewarding things about working at SAS.
What are some other examples where the analysis of social media data has helped non-business entities accomplish their missions of societal benefit?