CLOSE
Original image
Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester

New App Analyzes Tweets to Prevent Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Original image
Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester

Being sick is awful, but complaining often helps. In the future, your whining may help someone else. Computer scientists have found a way to use tweets complaining about food poisoning to track and prevent outbreaks. The researchers presented their results [PDF] at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence. 

Geolocation and public health have a long and storied relationship going back to the 1800s, when physician John Snow noticed a relationship between specific water pumps in London neighborhoods and the number of nearby people who died of cholera. At the time, physicians believed that cholera was called by “bad air.” Snow walked through cholera-stricken neighborhoods, talking to residents and watching where the pump from the water went. With this data, Snow was able to draw a precise map of pump usage, unequivocally proving that the water was to blame. (Unfortunately, it would take several years and many more cholera deaths before his “germ” theory was taken seriously.) 

We’ve come a long way since Dr. Snow, but contamination-related outbreaks remain a huge issue. Health departments do what they can with regular restaurant inspections, but they simply can’t be everywhere all of the time. Fortunately, there’s Twitter—and nEmesis. 

nEmesis is a cleverly named app (“emesis” is the medical term for puking) with a single purpose: to pinpoint the epicenter of clusters of food poisoning-related tweets. The researchers reviewed thousands of tweets, then compiled a list of the most common terms related to food poisoning. 

The appearance of any of those terms represents a hit. When enough hits appear in a given geographic area, the nEmesis algorithm can be pretty sure there’s a contaminated kitchen nearby. With enough data, the app can pinpoint outbreaks to a single restaurant. 

"We don't need to go door to door like John Snow did," nEmesis co-creator Adam Sadilek said in a press statement. "We can use all this data and mine it automatically."

Sadilek and his colleagues decided to test nEmesis in Las Vegas, a city that could fairly be called the buffet capital of the world. They gave the app to one group city health department workers, who used it to prioritize their kitchen inspections. A control group of workers were given an app that provided random suggestions as to which restaurants to inspect. 

The researchers collected and analyzed three months’ worth of data from nEmesis and the health inspectors who used it. About 9 percent of the randomized health inspections found citation-worthy violations. The nEmesis-suggested inspections, on the other hand, yielded a 15 percent citation rate. Some of the restaurants involved were given warnings, while others were closed altogether. 

Sadilek and his team say nEmesis likely prevented 9000 incidents of food poisoning and 557 hospitalizations.

"Adaptive inspections allow us to focus our limited resources on the restaurants with problems," communicable disease expert Brian Labus said in the press statement. "The sooner we find out about a problem, the sooner we can intervene and keep people from getting sick." 

Sadilek noted that food poisoning is just the beginning. 

"This happens to be restaurants, but the method can also be used for bedbugs," he said. "Similarly, you can look what people tweet about after they visit their doctor or hospital. We're just beginning to scratch the surface of what's possible."

All images from Adam Sadilek, University of Rochester 

Original image
iStock
arrow
Medicine
Why Haven't We Cured Cancer Yet?
Original image
iStock

Walkathons, fundraisers, and ribbon-shaped bumper stickers raise research dollars and boost spirits, but cancer—the dreaded disease that affects more than 14 million people and their families at any given time—still remains bereft of a cure.

Why? For starters, cancer isn't just one disease—it's more than 100 of them, with different causes. This makes it impossible to treat each one using a one-size-fits-all method. Secondly, scientists use lab-grown cell lines cultivated from human tumors to develop cancer therapies. Living masses are far more complex, so potential treatments that show promise in lab experiments often don't work on cancer patients. As for the tumors themselves, they're prone to tiny genetic mutations, so just one growth might contain multiple types of cancer cells, and even unique sub-clones of tumors. These distinct entities might not respond the same way, or at all, to the same drug.

These are just a few of the challenges that cancer researchers face—but the good news is that they're working to beat all of them, as this TED-Ed video explains below.

Original image
iStock
arrow
Health
Skipping Breakfast Could Be Bad for Your Heart
Original image
iStock

There are mountains of evidence supporting the claim that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Getting something in your stomach in the first hours of the morning can regulate your glucose levels, improve your cognition, and keep your hunger in check. Now new research published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology points to another reason not to wait until lunchtime to break last night’s fast. As TIME reports, people who skip breakfast are at an increased risk for atherosclerosis, a disease caused by plaque buildup in the arteries.

Researchers surveyed over 4000 men and women between the ages of 40 and 54 living in Spain. After looking at the dietary habits of each participant, they broke them into three groups: people who consumed more than 20 percent of their daily calories in the morning; those who got 5 to 20 percent; and those who ate less than 5 percent.

The subjects who ate very little in the a.m. hours or skipped breakfast all together were 2.5 more likely to have generalized atherosclerosis. This meant that plaque was starting to collect on the walls of their arteries, hardening and narrowing them and increasing the risk for heart attack or stroke. People who fell into the 5 to 20 percent calorie category were also more likely to show early signs of the disease, while those who ate the most calories in the morning were the healthiest.

These results aren’t entirely surprising. Previous studies have shown a connection between skipping breakfast and health problems like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and unwanted weight gain. A possible explanation for this trend could be that waiting several hours after waking up to eat your first meal of the day could trigger hormonal imbalances. The time between getting into and out of bed is the longest most of us go without eating, and our bodies expect us to consume some calories to help kickstart our energy for the day (drinking straight coffee doesn’t cut it). Another theory is that people who don’t eat in the morning are so hungry by the time lunch rolls around that they overcompensate for those missing calories, which is why skipping breakfast doesn’t make sense as a diet strategy.

But of course there are many breakfast skippers who aren’t motivated by health reasons either way: They just don’t think they have the time or energy to feed themselves in the morning before walking out the door. If this describes you, here are some simple, protein-packed meals you can prepare the night before.

[h/t TIME]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios