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For one researcher, Twitter proves a valuable tool in tracking spread of illness

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The massive popularity of social networks like Twitter is helping experts better map out the spread of illnesses and other health risks. More importantly, according to researcher Adam Sadilek, it could potentially help you avoid hotbeds for cold and flu. A web app he's developed is capable of analyzing tweets — in realtime — and pinpointing areas where you're more likely to catch an ailment of some sort. Sadilek and his partners claim the solution is capable of parsing natural language for "meaningful trends" while being smart enough to root out non-useful tweets.

Some of the findings are fairly obvious, of course: you're more likely to come down sick if you frequent public spaces like gyms or ride the commuter bus daily. But Sadilek maintains that Twitter makes for a viable (and cheap) way for officials and healthcare businesses to monitor the general health of a given area. The general population is also very curious: the GermTracker app site routinely reached 10,000 hits daily during the height of flu season in January. If you're not entirely impressed with the algorithm, you can chip in to improve the project yourself: clicking any colored dot lets visitors rank whether or not a health-related tweet was properly classified.