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Social media can help contain illness [Commentary]

In 1998, I had a start-up called NotFilms.com that provided an online platform for home videos.  At that time, online video was the size of a matchbook and very few people had a broadband connection capable of uploading video (let alone watching it), so users sent us their VHS tapes and DVDs via snail mail for us to digitize/encode it in glorious Quicktime, RealPlayer and Windows Media Player formats. 

This was obviously a barrier to entry, and the start-up failed along with numerous others during that early dot-com era.  It wasn't until broadband was more widely adopted that a little website called YouTube was then able to succeed at what we had attempted seven years prior.  Broadband has since enabled the success of many streaming video sites and apps.  Its importance cannot be overstated, but today broadband is mostly taken for granted, and may seem less obvious to some in its enabling of other technologies.

Twitter recently made headlines with a massive public offering that surprised even devoted followers of the company. Behind the headlines, though, social media is doing more than lifting the stock market — it's making advances on major problems in our society and even helping contain the spread of contagious diseases. 

Social media platforms have a wealth of data on the state of their users' health thanks to regular updates on Facebook and Twitter. By aggregating this information, social media can be used to identify outbreaks and help inform the public of hazards in their area. 

Much like weather forecasters using rain clouds to predict thunderstorms, my current company, Sickweather, uses social media to track and forecast illness outbreaks. No longer do you have to wait for reports from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention about the spread of a serious infection; now anyone can access the most up-to-date information online or via the Sickweather iPhone app. 

Social media is not the only broadband-enabled technology helping people stay healthy. Telemedicine is revolutionizing access to health care and driving down its costs. As former Surgeon General Richard Carmona pointed out recently, a Department of Veterans Affairs telemedicine program produced an annual savings of $2,000 per patient. 

Using voice and video technology, patients can now consult with doctors who are hundreds of miles away. Emergency medical responders can also view their patients' history remotely in order to make instantaneous and lifesaving decisions.

In Maryland, we are especially well equipped to adopt these new and potentially lifesaving technologies.

Maryland has one of the fastest broadband connection speeds in America. According to Akamai, a tech company that publishes a State of the Internet report, if individual states were compared to countries with the fastest average broadband speeds in the world, Maryland would place 10th worldwide. According to the National Broadband Map, 85.5 percent of the regional population has access to three or more wired broadband providers, and 96.5 percent of the regional population has access to four or more wireless providers.

But there's a catch. Platforms like Sickweather and other telemedicine advances rely not only on high-speed connectivity, but also engagement. The more people broadcast how well they feel on social media, the more accurate our algorithm is to detect a sudden outbreak. Like most of the 97,000 mobile health apps currently available, ours becomes more effective as more people get online.

Unfortunately, 30 percent of Americans still haven't adopted broadband at home; however that will change as access and cost are no longer barriers to entry. Today nearly every American can access either wired or wireless broadband, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development noted that the U.S. has the second lowest entry-level price for broadband.

Now we just need to overcome issues like digital literacy and, most importantly, understanding the importance of broadband in our lives. While non-adopters may not flock to the Internet for the sake of a tweet, they may just be convinced if their health is on the line.

Graham Dodge is the founder of the Baltimore-based company Sickweather. His email is info@sickweather.com.

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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