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Data mining begins to improve public health in Chicago

Paul Newman Archive

While federal authorities on public health are concerned with macro issues like researching drug development and enforcing new legislation, local offices can focus more on micro issues. They can even zoom in on the health of individual citizens and perform detailed research - that is, if they have high standards for data quality.

One example of data-driven improvement in public health comes from Chicago. According to the Chicago Tribune, the city government has been investigating tweets from citizens about such minor health issues as an individual case of food poisoning.

The city uses a new software solution that searches through local Twitter accounts, finds keywords on such health problems as "food poisoning" and then contacts people individually, asking them to file a report and share information that could benefit their local public health offices. It's an innovative new project, and it's one that helps the government collect more real-time data on problems that are actually affecting citizens.

Bechara Choucair, commissioner of health for the city of Chicago, told the Tribune that he was eager to explore new ways of tapping into real-time data about citizens.

"We wanted to try to reach out to Chicagoans in many different ways, and we know that a lot of people are on Twitter," Choucair said. "If they are experiencing food-related illness, they won't always pick up the phone and call us, but they will tweet it."

The initiative, called Foodborne Chicago, began in April 2013, and since then, the health department has contacted more than 150 people. In its first month, the program triggered 33 restaurant inspections, some of which uncovered violations.

Everyone's in favor of this new initiative - surprisingly, even the restaurants are on board, though they stand to lose money if the public health authorities start cracking down on them. Sam Toia, president of the Illinois Restaurant Association, told the Tribune that he has no complaints about the city's new practice.

"There is nothing more important than food safety in our restaurants," Toia said in a statement.

Of course, it can be difficult to ensure data quality when working with tweets posted by individual people. Citizens' Twitter accounts are going to be full of typos, inaccurate facts and other questionable data. There's tremendous potential for public and private organizations to make progress using technologies like this one, but they need to be careful about exactly what data they trust.