Can Twitter Detect HIV Outbreaks?
A new study has shown a link between HIV outbreaks and real-time social media platforms like Twitter. UCLA researchers published the study in Preventive Medicine journal, finding a connection between geographic outbreaks of HIV in the U.S. and tweets heavily focused on drugs and sexually risky behavior.
From May through December 2012, researchers collected 550 million tweets and looked for terms related to drugs and sexual behavior, including “get high” and “sex.” The researchers then generated a map showing the geographic locations of the tweets with the matching criteria. Using statistical models, they checked if those locations coincided with any areas with reported cases of HIV. Interestingly, they found a significant relationship between the tweets and the locations of reported cases. This could prove potentially useful to those health professionals and researchers who want to predict outbreaks and focus prevention efforts.
This study demonstrated that California, Texas, New York, and Florida had the largest total numbers of HIV risk-related tweets. Washington D.C., Delaware, South Carolina and Louisiana were the areas with the highest per capita rate of HIV risk-related tweets. Sean Young, co-director of the Center for Digital Behavior, stated that this study is “the first to suggest that Twitter can be used to predict people’s health-related behaviors and as a method for monitoring HIV risk behaviors and drug use.” The main weakness of the study is that the researchers used public data from 2009; for this to be useful in predicting future outbreaks, the data must be current.