The web and social networking has gotten a bad rep lately from research proving it ups anxiety, likelihood of obesity and the latest privacy battle between Facebook executives and users. However social scientists have found a novel way to use social networking to map contagious outbreaks.

Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, an internist, social scientist and professor of medical sociology, medicine, and sociology at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and James H. Fowler, a political scientist specializing in social networks and professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego, collaborated on a research project that analyzed "friends" to determine flu outbreaks (both seasonal and swine) at Harvard in 2009.

The study according to the May 14 print edition of The Economist, a global current events magazine, has been submitted to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences for publication . It is currently available for download via arVix.org, a research online database linked to Cornell University Library.

The researchers monitored 744 Harvard students by identifying random individuals and selecting their three most popular friends and those "most central" to analyze the spread of the flu. The novel approach showed promising evidence that social networks could be a valuable tool for keep communities healthy and preventing large outbreaks.

Fowler wrote, "Based on clinical diagnoses, the progression of the epidemic in the friend group occurred 14.7 days (95% C.I. 11.7-17.6) in advance of the randomly chosen group (i.e., the population as a whole). The friend group also showed a significant lead time (p<0.05) on day 16 of the epidemic, a full 46 days before the peak in daily incidence in the population as a whole."

He continued, "This sensor method could provide significant additional time to react to epidemics in small or large populations under surveillance. Moreover, the method could in principle be generalized to other biological, psychological, informational, or behavioral contagions that spread in networks."

Maybe you should start asking friends to provide health status updates.

To access the abstract, "Social Network Sensors for Early Detection of Contagious Outbreaks" visit: http://arxiv.org/abs/1004.4792

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