Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

You are what you tweet: Tracking public health trends with Twitter

07.07.2011
Twitter allows millions of social media fans to comment in 140 characters or less on just about anything: an actor's outlandish behavior, an earthquake's tragic toll or the great taste of a grilled cheese sandwich.

But by sifting through this busy flood of banter, is it possible to also track important public health trends? Two Johns Hopkins University computer scientists would respond with a one-word tweet: "Yes!"

Mark Dredze and Michael J. Paul fed 2 billion public tweets posted between May 2009 and October 2010 into computers, then used software to filter out the 1.5 million messages that referred to health matters. Identities of the tweeters were not collected by Dredze, a researcher at the university's Human Language Technology Center of Excellence and an assistant research professor of computer science, and Paul, a doctoral student.

"Our goal was to find out whether Twitter posts could be a useful source of public health information, " Dredze said. "We determined that indeed, they could. In some cases, we probably learned some things that even the tweeters' doctors were not aware of, like which over-the-counter medicines the posters were using to treat their symptoms at home."

By sorting these health-related tweets into electronic "piles," Dredze and Paul uncovered intriguing patterns about allergies, flu cases, insomnia, cancer, obesity, depression, pain and other ailments.

"There have been some narrow studies using Twitter posts, for example, to track the flu," Dredze said. "But to our knowledge, no one has ever used tweets to look at as many health issues as we did."

Dredze and Paul, who also are affiliated with the university's Center for Language and Speech Processing, have discussed some of their results in recent months at computer science conferences. They will present their complete study on July 18 in Barcelona, Spain, at the International Conference on Weblogs and Social Media, sponsored by the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence.

In addition to finding a range of health ailments in Twitter posts, the researchers were able to record many of the medications that ill tweeters consumed, thanks to posts such as: "Had to pop a Benadryl…allergies are the worst."

Other tweets pointed to misuse of medicine. "We found that some people tweeted that they were taking antibiotics for the flu," Paul said. "But antibiotics don't work on the flu, which is a virus, and this practice could contribute to the growing antibiotic resistance problems. So these tweets showed us that some serious medical misperceptions exist out there."

Of course, the vast majority of daily tweets have nothing to do with an illness. While a simple approach would be to filter for words that are tied to illness, such as "headache" or "fever," this strategy fails on such tweets as "High price of gas is a headache for my business" or "Got a case of Bieber Fever. Love his new song."

To find the health-related posts among the billions of messages in their original pool, the Johns Hopkins researchers applied a filtering and categorization system they devised. With this tool, computers can be taught to disregard phrases that do not really relate to one's health, even though they contain a word commonly used in a health context.

Once the unrelated tweets were removed, the remaining results provided some surprising findings.

"When we started, I didn't even know if people talked about allergies on Twitter," Paul said. "But we found out that they do. And there was one thing I didn't expect: The system found two different types of allergies: the type that causes sniffling and sneezing and the kind that causes skin rashes and hives."

In about 200,000 of the health-related tweets, the researchers were able to draw on user-provided public information to identify the geographic state from which the message was sent. That allowed them to track some trends by time and place, such as when the allergy and flu seasons peaked in various parts of the country. "We were able to see from the tweets that the allergy season started earlier in the warmer states and later in the Midwest and the Northeast," Dredze said.

Dredze and Paul have already begun talking to public health scientists, including some affiliated with Johns Hopkins, who say that future studies of tweets could uncover even more useful data, not only about posters' medical problems but also about public perceptions concerning illnesses, medications and other health issues.

Still, Dredze and Paul cautioned that trying to take the nation's temperature by analyzing tweets has its limitations. For one thing, most Twitter users did not comment more than once on their particular ailment, making it tough to track how long the illness lasted and whether it recurred. In addition, most Twitter users tend to be young, which would exclude many senior citizens from a public health study. Also, at the moment, Twitter is dominated by users who are in the United States, making it less useful for research in other countries.

Although social media sites allow users to expose lots of personal information to friends and strangers, Twitter-based research may only reach a certain depth.

"In our study," Paul said, "we could only learn what people were willing to share. We think there's a limit to what people are willing to share on Twitter."

Nevertheless, Dredze says there is still plenty of useful data left to plumb from Twitter posts. "The people I've talked to have felt this is a really interesting research tool," he said, "and they have some great ideas about what they'd like to learn next from Twitter."

Related links:

Human Language Technology Center of Excellence at Johns Hopkins:
http://hltcoe.jhu.edu
Johns Hopkins Department of Computer Science:
http://www.cs.jhu.edu/
Johns Hopkins Center for Language and Speech Processing:
http://www.clsp.jhu.edu/

Phil Sneiderman | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.jhu.edu

More articles from Social Sciences:

nachricht Sibling differences: Later-borns choose less prestigious programs at university
14.11.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für demografische Forschung

nachricht Visual intelligence is not the same as IQ
09.11.2017 | Vanderbilt University

All articles from Social Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Optical Nanoscope Allows Imaging of Quantum Dots

Physicists have developed a technique based on optical microscopy that can be used to create images of atoms on the nanoscale. In particular, the new method allows the imaging of quantum dots in a semiconductor chip. Together with colleagues from the University of Bochum, scientists from the University of Basel’s Department of Physics and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute reported the findings in the journal Nature Photonics.

Microscopes allow us to see structures that are otherwise invisible to the human eye. However, conventional optical microscopes cannot be used to image...

Im Focus: Artificial agent designs quantum experiments

On the way to an intelligent laboratory, physicists from Innsbruck and Vienna present an artificial agent that autonomously designs quantum experiments. In initial experiments, the system has independently (re)discovered experimental techniques that are nowadays standard in modern quantum optical laboratories. This shows how machines could play a more creative role in research in the future.

We carry smartphones in our pockets, the streets are dotted with semi-autonomous cars, but in the research laboratory experiments are still being designed by...

Im Focus: Scientists decipher key principle behind reaction of metalloenzymes

So-called pre-distorted states accelerate photochemical reactions too

What enables electrons to be transferred swiftly, for example during photosynthesis? An interdisciplinary team of researchers has worked out the details of how...

Im Focus: The first precise measurement of a single molecule's effective charge

For the first time, scientists have precisely measured the effective electrical charge of a single molecule in solution. This fundamental insight of an SNSF Professor could also pave the way for future medical diagnostics.

Electrical charge is one of the key properties that allows molecules to interact. Life itself depends on this phenomenon: many biological processes involve...

Im Focus: Paradigm shift in Paris: Encouraging an holistic view of laser machining

At the JEC World Composite Show in Paris in March 2018, the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT will be focusing on the latest trends and innovations in laser machining of composites. Among other things, researchers at the booth shared with the Aachen Center for Integrative Lightweight Production (AZL) will demonstrate how lasers can be used for joining, structuring, cutting and drilling composite materials.

No other industry has attracted as much public attention to composite materials as the automotive industry, which along with the aerospace industry is a driver...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

10th International Symposium: “Advanced Battery Power – Kraftwerk Batterie” Münster, 10-11 April 2018

08.01.2018 | Event News

See, understand and experience the work of the future

11.12.2017 | Event News

Innovative strategies to tackle parasitic worms

08.12.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Rutgers scientists discover 'Legos of life'

23.01.2018 | Life Sciences

Seabed mining could destroy ecosystems

23.01.2018 | Earth Sciences

Transportable laser

23.01.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

VideoLinks Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>