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Digital Surveillance for Monitoring Environmental Health Threats: A Case Study Capturing Public Opinion from Twitter about the 2019 Chennai Water Crisis


Globally, water scarcity has become a common challenge across many regions. Digital surveillance holds promise for monitoring environmental threats to population health due to severe drought. The 2019 Chennai water crisis in India resulted in severe disruptions to social order and daily life, with local residents suffering due to water shortages. This case study explored public opinion captured through the Twitter social media platform, and whether this information could help local governments with emergency response. Sentiment analysis and topic modeling were used to explore public opinion through Twitter during the 2019 Chennai water crisis. The latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) method identified topics that were most frequently discussed. A naïve Tweet classification method was built, and Twitter posts (called tweets) were allocated to identified topics. Topics were ranked, and corresponding emotions were calculated. A cross-correlation was performed to examine the relationship between online posts about the water crisis and actual rainfall, determined by precipitation levels. During the Chennai water crisis, Twitter users posted content that appeared to show anxiety about the impact of the drought, and also expressed concerns about the government response. Twitter users also mentioned causes for the drought and potential sustainable solutions, which appeared to be mainly positive in tone. Discussion on Twitter can reflect popular public opinion related to emerging environmental health threats. Twitter posts appear viable for informing crisis management as real-time data can be collected and analyzed. Governments and public health officials should adjust their policies and public communication by leveraging online data sources, which could inform disaster prevention measures.

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