US researchers believe that data from sources including discussion forums and news websites can help them better cope with outbreaks of disease.
The team from the Children's Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School has launched an automated data-gathering system called HealthMap to collate, organise and disseminate this online intelligence.
Describing the project in this week's PLoS Medicine, the team argues that online information can be hugely valuable to medical professionals by helping with early event detection.
The data can also support "situational awareness" by providing current and local information about outbreaks.
However, the researchers warned that information overload poses "substantial barriers" to fully using this information.
To overcome these problems, the authors created the freely accessible HealthMap Project, which they describe as a "multi-stream real-time surveillance platform that continually aggregates reports on new and ongoing infectious disease outbreaks".
The researchers argue that the use of web data can "facilitate early outbreak detection, increase public awareness of outbreaks prior to formal recognition, and provide an integrated and contextualised view of global health information" .
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