Signal to noise

Increasing signal-to-noise on H1N1/Swine flu

April 2009

With social media gaining traction since SARS (2003) and Avian H5N1 (2006), it will be interesting to see what role it might now play as a media tool in the current pandemic du jour.  The benefits of social media are clear, namely speed of communication, and monitoring sentiment.  The cost in accuracy is not insignficant, and it will be simply a matter of how to best use it.  Can new micro media services like twitter add anything useful? Will good information float well enough above the bad to make it worthwhile keeping track of?

I don’t think the question is whether people should, its a question of how they should. Twitter is just an open conversation tool, and people will use it to talk about issues important to them, and if swineflu/H1N1 does take hold, it will become one of those issues.

Access and distribute reliable information. Thankfully, several streams of information are available from official government and international agencies. (WHO -website & twitter CDC – Website, Twitter, Email).  The higher the official signal to unofficial noise, the better.  You could argue that it is often slower and more deliberate than other sources, but they have significant cost/benefit analyses to make with each official release.  Partially uncertain information is occasionally communicated, but only after due consideration.

Focus on facts and confirmed cases. Real numbers are much less than that reported in the media. If somebody publishes something without a link to either official or reliable press (eg. AFP) sources and you’re still interested, try looking for a pattern of multiple first hand accounts rather than a chain of retweets. Specifically with the current H1N1 Swineflu outbreak, “suspected” cases can be very misleading.  Once an “area” (eg. often a city) has a single laboratory confirmed case, everybody who presents to the emergency department, or general practitioner, with at least two of 1) runny nose or nasal congestion, 2) sore throat, 3) cough, 4) fever or feverishness gets labelled as a “suspected case”. This is all in the CDC case definition here.  You can imagine the number of patients with otherwise innocuous colds that come through like this everyday, let alone when the population is on heightened alert.

The next bit of information of interest to most people will be a change in the global pandemic alert phase which can be found here. For Australians, the federal government has a website up at with some information on pandemic preparedness with links to each state health departments. Its not the best, but at least its something local for both clinicians and the public.

The best source of CONFIRMED US cases are to be found here

Below is an unofficial map from of human cases of H1N1 infection.

Know of any good, reliable sources of information people might find useful?

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  • Ross Hill

    I don’t think the ratio actually matters, as long as we can figure out which profiles know their stuff. The fake Stephen Conroy’s of the world are a problem.

    It’s really a social issue and we already know which friends we trust for certain types of information. If someone keeps posting innaccurate stuff we just stop listening to them.

  • pieter

    Good points, although the ratio can always be better. On this particular issue speed of information retrieval isn’t currently important, so traditional media for distribution is adequate. I don’t think social media can add much more than listening to the nightly news at the moment. Hyperlocal issues might spring up, but I can’t think of anything particular right now.
    There are ways of minimising distribution of misinformation though and every bit helps. Social media has the potential to be full of it, and on this particular issue it already is. It wasn’t ever going to be any other way.
    Absolutely, focusing on people/resources that you know and can rely on will will definitely happen naturally. Like always though, when people get desperate, they’ll often believe anyone that can give them false hope over reality, its just human nature, and in that situation you have room for exploitation.

  • Melina Chan

    Fascinating post Pieter.

    One thing I’ve noticed as a person that uses Twitter through the webpage is that Swine Flu has been prominent in the “Trending Topics” feature over the past few days. If I’d not previously heard anything about the potential pandemic, I might’ve clicked on the link for Twitter to show all posts containing that keyword and been bombarded. When doing this, it appears that for sure there are many more tweets mentioning Swine Flu humourously or in passing than there are tweets that *sound* reputable. NOT an effective way to get a good picture of the lay of the land from reliable information sources.

    But in the case that an individual has not heard anything about it, and no one they are following (or trust for that sort of information) is tweeting about it, then one could just click to find out more. As I did with “Gretel” when the Logies were airing. There was a much clearer message coming through, in that case though :)

  • pieter

    What’s interesting, and not surprising in the least, is that the popular usage of the term “Swine flu” has persisted in this way, despite all authorities switching to, and trying to get other people to use the term “H1N1 flu”. There has been a misunderstanding around the origins of this particular strain, as it’s not not necessarily clear it comes from entirely from pigs. A small decision right at the start of this event by the CDC and WHO to use this term has led to the unnecessary culling of >300k pigs in Egypt (some suggest the Egyptian government had alternative motives in the pig cull), and some (how much?) damage to the pig industry globally. Vegetarians might not have an issue with this, but the principle is still clear.
    It demonstrates the need to consider the names of these potentially significant media events very carefully, and have them be as neutral as possible. I suspect the term “swineflu” will persist for a while yet.

  • Ah1n1

    well done job
    good link!

  • Ah1n1

    well done job
    good link!

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