News, Culture & Society

Facebook data could predict spread of disease outbreaks says new research on ‘social-connectedness’

Facebook data could help predict the spread of future diseases say researchers who found link between social connections and coronavirus hotspots

  • A new study suggests Facebook data could predict pandemics in early stages
  • The research uses a ‘Social-Connectedness Index’ to link disparate geographies
  • Researchers found a link between COVID-19 hotspots on far-off regions
  • The study suggests it could augment current tools used to judge outbreaks 
  • Learn more about how to help people impacted by COVID

Researchers say evaluating the ‘social-connectedness’ of regions using Facebook data could give epidemiologists another tool in judging the spread of infectious disease outside of geographic proximity and population density.

The study, which appears in the preprint journal ArXiv and is authored by researchers from New York University, found links between two hotspots of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic – Westchester County, New York and Lodi province in Italy – to areas with correlating connections on the social media platform, Facebook.   

Using an equation developed by the same researchers in 2017 called the ‘Social Connectedness Index’ the study was able to make correlations between the spread of COVID-19 from Westchester County and Lodi to geographically disparate locations like ski resorts on Florida and vacation spots in Rimini, Italy near the Adriatic sea. 

Facebook data could help researchers predict the spread of infectious diseases according to a new study on social connectedness as it relates to an ongoing pandemic (Stock photo)

Those correlations remained even after controlling for wealth, population density, and geographic proximity according to researchers.

Levels of social connectedness didn’t always correlate to the disproportionate spread of the virus, however. 

According to researchers, Lodi has a high level of connectedness to regions in southern Italy like Lombardy where both workers and students travel but the area has not seen a significant impact from the pandemic.

They suggest that Italy’s timely lockdown may have mitigated effects there.   

Researchers claim that Facebook data viewed under their connectedness formula could help forecast the spread of diseases like COVID-19 to regions unseen by other models.

‘This finding suggests to us that the geographic structure of social network as measured by Facebook may indeed provide a useful proxy for the type of social interactions that epidemiologists have long known to contribute to the spread of communicable diseases,’ researchers write.  

As noted by The Guardian, the researchers’ Social Connectedness Index may not be as effective in later stages of pandemics after lockdown measures are implemented and coupled with travel restrictions, but it could help during the initial spread to gauge at-risk communities. 

Though Facebook data hasn’t yet found a critical role in evaluating the spread of COVID-19, other tech giants like Google and Facebook have partnered up to provide governments and health authorities with support on developing their own contact-tracing apps to assess the spread of the virus.

CDC: WHAT IS SOCIAL DISTANCING?

Also called ‘physical distancing,’ according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) it means keeping space between yourself and other people outside of your home.

It’s recommended as COVID-19 cases can spread when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks, and droplets from their mouth or nose are launched into the air and land in the mouths or noses of people nearby. The droplets can also be inhaled into the lungs.

To practice social or physical distancing, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Avoid large and small gatherings in private places and public spaces 
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a cloth face cover when around others 
  • Stay at least 6 feet (2 meters) from other people even when you wear a face covering
  • Avoid using any kind of public transportation, ridesharing, or taxis 
  • Use mail-order for medications
  • Use grocery delivery service 
  • Work from home
  • Use digital/distance learning  

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk