Ebola app tracks virus using Twitter

Aaron Mudd

In the past few months, the world has watched what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is calling, “the largest Ebola outbreak in history and the first in West Africa.” The World Health Organization reported 2,622 deaths as recently as Sept. 14 in its fourth situation report. 

For Bowling Green graduate student Armin Smailhodzic, the outbreak was an opportunity for him to develop a mobile phone application called The Ebola Project. The application tracks Ebola through an unexpected medium — Twitter. 

At first, Smailhodzic was working on identifying tweets from specific countries based on spelling in different languages, he said. 

The app is a part of Smailhodzic’s graduate research in the Homeland Security Sciences master’s program, which includes using Twitter to track trends.

Smailhodzic said he got the idea from Cathleen Webb, head of the chemistry department, who suggested he try tracking the outbreak. Smailhodzic was skeptical. 

“At first we were like, ‘Well, it’s Africa. There’s no one going to be tweeting in there,’” he said. “As soon as I typed in Ebola, I had over six-and-a-half million hits.” 

Webb suggested they look into outbreaks after Keith Andrew, head of the physics and astronomy department, described the project to her. 

Webb said she thought it would be interesting if Andrew and Smailhodzic tracked Ebola using Twitter because it was hard to track otherwise. 

 Webb said those infected with Ebola were afraid to get treatment in hospitals. 

“Their hospitals are overwhelmed,” she said. “Initially, Ebola was not recognized because it never occurred in West Africa. The resources were very limited.” 

While people are afraid to go to hospitals, they still tweet about Ebola.

 After Webb gave him some initial search parameters and cities, Smailhodzic looked at the outbreak more closely. Smailhodzic compared what he found to available information from the WHO and CDC.

Smailhodzic said what he observed on Twitter and the cases and death counts provided by the WHO and CDC were within 24 hours of each other. 

Smailhodzic said the strand affecting people in West Africa will likely spread around countries on the west coast, such as Nigeria. He has also located another strand of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

The project is applying for a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which could help expand it, Smailhodzic said. 

The software Smailhodzic originally used to develop the app was bought out and now comes with a $12,000 annual subscription fee and is limited to one computer, he said. 

Smailhodzic uses the free edition and supplements lacking features with other software. With more money, Smailhodzic said he could improve the results he gets. 

“If it’s just adapted a little it can track anything, anywhere,” he said. 

The technology can be used to track much more than diseases, Andrew said.

He’s listened to student suggestions. 

“One student thought he would like to track something related to gang violence,” Andrew said. “It strikes me as being harder — so I’m not sure what we would learn looking at that, but certainly it would be good to have a student look at that.” 

Smailhodzic defended his research at a recent conference where he said people told him to focus on research that can help Kentucky and the United States. 

“If you have a global partnership helping everyone, that’s better research than me just looking for something to help Bowling Green, or Kentucky or just the United States,” he said.