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Say what? You can predict disease spread with Twitter?

Social media has totally integrated in to our lives. We are constantly updating our status on Facebook or Twitter to let our social network know how we are feeling and what we are doing. For that reason Twitter is an ideal source for data if you want to predict human behavior on a large scale. Researchers from the University of Rochester thought the same way and wanted to make prediction on human behavior on a large scale that would be useful for both individuals and organizations. They therefor decided to try and predict the spread of diseases through Twitter posts. And they succeeded to do so, but how did they do it?

A twitter post contains a couple of simple elements. First of all there are some lines with text in which a person self-reports what he is doing or how he is feeling. From this they were able to detect if a person was having an influenza-type of disease. A twitter post also contains a date and a time, which needless to say helps map out the pattern of disease spread on a more detailed level. However, what they first of all need to map out the pattern of disease spread is a location of someone who is giving of influenza type signals. They achieved to collect this data through the fine-grained GPS location that is attached to a Tweet. By tracking this data from millions of tweets they were able to map out the spread of these influenza type diseases (Couwenberg, 2011; Sadilek, Kautz, & Silenzio, 2012). After that they created an application called GermTracker were you can explore the pattern of the spread of diseases. It also shows you on a map were sick people have been in the last couple of hours and were you currently are through your GPS location and how sick people near you could have impacted your health (Humanaut, 2015; Sadilek, Kautz, & Silenzio, 2012).


However, they took it a step further by combining these patterns of disease spread with dozens of other factors that compose a threat to a persons health like pollution levels.  From this they are able to make predictions eight days in to the future about what your health is going to be like. They do this by combining these different data sets with your GPS locations of the last couple of days. For example, people that take the subway every day, visit bars often or live close to pollution sources are significantly more likely to catch the flu. According to researchers from the University of Rochester these predictions are right 90% of the time. They track around 10 cities over the world which gives them a pretty good idea of what a typical day in terms of diseases look like in these cities based on historical data. The can compare new days with these typical days and issue alerts when they see a rise in the number of sick people in a certain geographical area. On a personal level a person can use this information to make choices that can help him avoid getting sick. For example, you could decide to not take the subway to your work but go by bike. According to the researchers the application could also be of public use by assisting the government in giving of health alerts (Sadilek, Kautz, & Silenzio, 2012).

Personally, I cannot see the benefits of obtaining all this information on a personal level. In my opinion you cannot run from a disease and I wouldn’t want to spend my time on trying to avoid it. But seeing the fact that ten thousands of people use GermTracker on a daily basis, this is apparently a matter of opinion. On a public level however, I think this application has a huge potential when it comes to assisting public health institutions. For example it could help hospitals by alerting them that they can expect a higher number of people coming in with certain diseases and thus help them more effectively deploy human resources. It could also assist hospitals in estimating the number of flu shots that should be available by predicting the chance of a flu epidemic. What do you think about this application? Would you appreciate it that an application lets you know that an hour ago a sick person was at the restaurant where you are now eating a meal? Would you like to know that you are going to be sick in a couple of days or would that be a depressing thought for you? Definitely interesting questions which will probably differ from person to person.


Couwenbergh, H. 2011. ‘De anatomie van een tweet’. Tweetmania [Online], Available: [19 Oct 2015]

Humanaut. 2015. ‘Germtracker’. Humanaut [Online], Available: [19 Oct 2015]

Sadilek, A., Kautz, H., & Silenzio, V. 2012. Predicting Disease Transmission from Geo-Tagged Micro-Blog Data. Proceedings of the Twenty-Sixth AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence.


Is IT the solution to a sustainable business?

Sustainability has been a hot topic for a couple of years know and people in the western world have incorporated sustainability more and more in their daily lives. Some examples would be the increasing number of households that is putting solar panels on the top of their roofs to produce green energy and the increasing sales of electrical car models like Tesla and Toyota Prius. Step by step we are becoming more aware that we are the tenants of our own planet and have to make wise choices about the use of both finite and renewable energy sources. From this, it can be concluded that environmental issues have become a public concern in the last decade. However, this development also has implications for organizations.

For many organizations in the market place, sustainability has become a so called order qualifier or order winner, depending on the specific market, industry and society the organization operates in (Shahbazpour & Seidle, 2006). Many of them have even incorporated sustainability into their mission statement like Unilever (2015) who states the following: “we are committed to continuously improving the way we manage our environmental impacts and are working towards our longer-term goal of developing a sustainable business”. Thus, sustainability has become a critical factor for organizations to compete in the marketplace and some of them have succeeded to turn it into a competitive advantage. But how does an organization become a sustainable business? Well, this is a complicated process which goes further then only making your business processes more environmental friendly, like reducing electricity usage or Co2 output in your production process. But it also encompasses altering an organizations identity by embedding sustainability into the strategy and changing the culture into one that supports sustainability. Research has found that “sustainable companies are willing and able to engage in the kind of ongoing transformational change that is required as social expectations evolve” and that “they aggressively create new processes, products and business models that improve environmental, social and governance performance” (Eccles, Miller Perkins & Serafeim, 2012).

But what part is information technology playing in this story? Is it part of the problem or is it part of the solution? Well information technology itself is not a big part of the problem, seeing the fact that it only contributes for 2% of the global carbon emissions. However, IT is already a big part of today’s solutions. Currently IT is having a wide array of positive effects on business sustainability. IT has provided organizations with insights into their impact on the environment by giving them the tools to monitor environmental parameters like energy use and Co2 output. From these insights strategies can be developed to reduce these outputs. IT has also provided organizations with numerous tools to directly influence their environmental footprint, like e-invoicing which is making organizations more paperless (Economist Business Intelligence, 2009). Especially the future possibilities of enhancing business sustainability through big data analytics are very exciting. But we are only at the beginning of figuring out what we can do with the huge amounts of data that we are generating on a daily basis. However, big data is already giving organizations the ability to understand the entire end-to-end impact their business activities are having on sustainability. This means that they are also able to look outside the boundaries of their own organization, which is often the place were organizations have the biggest environmental impacts (Hsu, 2014).

So think about the importance of sustainability for your organization. Does it affect your market position or can you gain a competitive advantage from it? In which ways is your organization already a sustainable business and how can you make your organization more sustainable? But especially think about how IT can help you accomplish your desired state of business sustainability.


Eccles, R.G., Miller Perkins, K., & Serafeim, G. 2012. How to Become a Sustainable Company. MIT Sloan Management Review, 53(4): 43 – 51.

Economist Intelligence Unit. 2009. IT and sustainability: bringing best practices to business. Oracle [Online], Available: [12 Oct 2015]

Hsu, J. 2014. ‘Why big data will have a big impact on sustainability’. The Guardian [Online], Available: [12 Oct 2015]

Shahbazpour, M., & Seidel, R. H. 2006. Using Sustainability for Competitive Advantage. 13th CIRP International Conference On Life Cycle Engineering, Leuven, Belgium.

Unilever. 2015. ‘Purpose and principles’. Unilever [Online], Available: [12 Oct 2015]