Public health officials could use social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook to track contagious diseases, according to research published Tuesday.

The idea of gauging the outside world through online tools isn't farfetched - researchers previously used Twitter, the microblogging site, to monitor global mood swings throughout the day, identify regional dialects and assist criminal investigations.

The current research used Twitter to track and map flu-like illnesses across the U.K. to determine if epidemics were emerging.

The research culminated into an online visual tool, the Flu Detector, that maps tweeted flu rates in several regions across the U.K.

Nello Cristianini and Vasileios Lampos artificial intelligence researchers at the University of Bristol's Intelligent Systems Laboratory published the study in the journal ACM Transaction on Intelligent Systems and Technology.

Our research has demonstrated a method by using the content of Twitter, to track and event, when it occurs and the scale of it, Cristianini said in a statement.

The researchers also used Twitter to find rainfall across the U.K.

Intelligent data mining is a growing specialty among artificial intelligence experts. The Web Site We Feel Fine, developed by computer scientists Jonathan Harris and Sep Kanvar drew attention to the data mining concept in a novel way: by visualizing how the whole world feels by pulling emotional keywords from millions of tweets, blog posts and other social media feeds.

Cristianini's research may lead to applications that visualize disease outbreaks in the same way. Other applications could help emergency response personnel get help to people after a disaster such as hurricane Katrina.

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