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, spon
|Contact: Phil Sneiderman|
Johns Hopkins University