A team of UCLA researchers have found that Twitter as well as other real-time social media tools can be extremely useful in tracking outbreaks of HIV and drug use.
Mashable reports that the team’s study, published in the journal Preventive Medicine and conducted through the Center for Digital Behavior at UCLA, states that tweets with phrases containing drug-related or sexually risky behavior can tell us which areas of the country should be most efficiently targeted with detection and prevention efforts.
Researchers collected over 550 million tweets from May 26 to December 9, 2012 and created an algorithm to sort those with key words or phrases, such as “sex” or “get high.”
These tweets were then plotted on a map before statistical models checked whether the locations of the users matched areas reporting an increase in drug use and HIV cases.
While a link was unquestionably established between the tweets and the nature of their locations, the relationship cannot be entirely confirmed because the data was from 2009.
Frequently updated data is necessary for health experts to actually begin using Twitter to predict future outbreaks, according to Mashable.
“This is the first [study] 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,” said Sean Young, the study’s co-director.
Young’s team found California, Texas, New York and Florida to be the states with the largest concentration of HIV risk-related tweets.
Washington, DC, Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina, on the other hand, had the highest per capita rate of HIV risk-related tweets.