How big data revealed a powerful forgotten ally in the fight against Zika.

In 2015, the Zika virus cropped up in Latin America. In doing so, it planted itself firmly in our worry-filled human minds, too.

Photo from Luis Robayo/AFP/Getty Images.

Zika is a mosquito-borne virus that can make people very sick. It causes a variety of problems, including birth defects in unborn children.


In February 2016, the Brazilian chapter of UNICEF (the United Nations program aimed at supporting women and children in the developing world) wanted to help educate people about the disease. So they started to develop an awareness campaign.

The right message to the right people can save lives — but how do you make sure your message is right?

In most stories, this would be the place where the organization comes up with a game plan, runs it through a focus group, hires some graphic designers or copywriters, then distributes the new message. Maybe afterward, they'd do an analysis to see if they aimed right.

But in this case, that's not what UNICEF did. They suspected there might be a better way.

Before they even started on the campaign, UNICEF teamed up with Facebook to figure out who their audience for Zika actually was.

“In order to address a problem, you have to understand how the public is thinking about it," says Molly Jackman, a research manager at Facebook.

UNICEF ended up working with Facebook and another partner, ActionSprout. They pulled a bunch of anonymous, aggregated data from Brazilian Facebook, trying to find out what the public really was saying about the virus.

They ended up finding some surprising information.

One of the big secret success factors to Zika awareness? Men.

A doctor told this dad his child might be in danger because of Zika. Photo by Diego Herculano/NurPhoto.

Conventional thinking was that because everyone was talking about Zika's dangers to pregnant women, any messages about health and safety should be targeted at women. Seems obvious, yeah? But it turned out men weren't exactly being silent about it.

In fact, men were responsible for the majority of posts about Zika. Moms weren't the only ones worried about Zika's potential effect on babies. Dads were too.

UNICEF realized it had accidentally ignored this huge group of people in its messaging. So it created a post specifically aimed at engaging the dads of Brazil in fighting Zika.

Este pai quer ajudar outras famílias a conviver com a microcefalia.Quando soube que a esposa estava grávida, Felipe se...

Posted by UNICEF Brasil on Friday, 29 April 2016

Based on the Facebook analysis, UNICEF was also able to hit a couple of other areas, like preemptively reinforcing that Zika wasn't a laughing matter. They also created Q&A sessions with experts and expanded their education to other mosquito-based disease.

All this work paid off. An after-the-fact analysis showed that people who got this info were not only more engaged, aware, and more likely to take action to prevent the spread of the disease, but their results beat out a traditional campaign.

Social media is a tool that can be used for good, and this story shows that.

Like all tools, we should be mindful of how we use it, of course. But the right tool in the right hands can make a huge difference.

“Trends in the public conversation are vitally important to health organizations," says Jackman. "That information can save lives.”

The internet is a big, weird place. But it's pretty cool that in this case, we harnessed it for good.

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