EPA Wants to Buy Tweets for Research on Stomach Flu

Bureaucrats will look at messages with ‘nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea’

January 24, 2014

The federal government is sanctioning a five-year study on the stomach flu using Twitter, which will involve bureaucrats from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) analyzing tweets about unpleasant flu symptoms.

The agency is seeking a blanket purchase agreement (BPA) with a company that will buy tweets to research causes and effects of the flu, and is specifically concerned with messages that describe "nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea."

The EPA posted a "special notice" on Jan. 15, and requested responses by Friday. The agency changed the solicitation at 12:10 p.m. today, extending the deadline to Jan. 31.

"The BPA is conducting a study to develop the use of social media to identify individuals in the United States that are suffering from Acute Gastroenteritis Infections (AGI)," the notice said. AGI is the technical term for the stomach flu.

The agency is "requesting a BPA to purchase Twitter messages based on search criteria EPA provide the vendor," the solicitation states. "The information gather will then be used to compile cause and affect analyses for research."

"The following example search terms are considered evidence of AGI: Stomach flu, stomach bug, stomach ache, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea."

The EPA provided more details in its change to the solicitation on Friday, explaining that they are not interested if a person’s dog is sick.

"We want the twitter tweet, machine learning algorithm for text mining, sensitivity, specificity, positive prediction, accuracy, Gnip search terms, Linds Panther," it said. "Positive clauses: nausea, diarrhea, stomach flu, abdominal pain, and vomit. Negative clauses: -cat or -dog."

Along with the symptoms, the government is asking when and where people are tweeting about their flu experience, which will then be analyzed by "human health specialists" at the EPA.

"The vendor will use these terms and attributes to obtain Twitter messages that will be evaluated by U.S. EPA human health specialists to determine if they are indicative of AGI," the solicitation said.

"The number of tweets from each search will be verified by the vendor and in-house U.S. EPA human health specialists," the document continued. "In-house statistical analysis will be performed to determine if the tweets correlate with epidemiological data from the [Centers of Disease Control] CDC."

The selected vendor will provide tweets to the EPA’s National Exposure Research Laboratory (NERL) in Cincinnati, Ohio. The lab is intended to research "environmental threats," and "known contaminants and environmental stressors."

It is not clear why the EPA is conducting the study rather than the Department of Health and Human Services.

The EPA is looking for a company that has experience working with the government and that understands "human health issues and computer science search tools."

"The vendor will have flexibility in the formatting of the collected data," the document said. "The vendor will have affordable pricing for the tweets and labor associated with them. The vendor will have quick response time and good customer support."

An estimate for the cost of the contract is not listed, but the purchase agreement will cover a 60-month period.

Similar projects have cost millions. The National Institutes of Health recently allotted $5 million for several studies of Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for research on drug abuse over a three-year period. The NIH also awarded a one-year $82,800 grant to research how to use Twitter for surveillance on depressed people.

The EPA did not return requests for comment by deadline.

Update 6:15 p.m., Friday Jan. 24: The EPA  said the study revolves around more than just the stomach flu.

"EPA is not specifically studying stomach flu; the agency is using social media to study information on health outcomes. This study is a pilot effort to see if Twitter can be effectively used to track Gastroenteritis Infections rates, which then may be a tool to monitor potential issues with drinking water distribution system," the agency said.