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Twitter Trends: What Can Tweets Reveal About Public Health?

Jul 7, 2011, 3:21 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth


Take 2 billion public tweets; add in two computer scientists; and sprinkle with a software filter that allows tracking of health topics on Twitter - what do you get? Turns out, you can find out lots of interesting public health trends, as two Johns Hopkins computer scientists recently discovered.

Mark Dredze and Michael J. Paul fed 2 billion public tweets posted between May 2009 and October 2010, in order to "find out whether Twitter posts could be a useful source of public health information, “ Dredze said in a Johns Hopkins press release. “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.”

Further study of the tweets and the data filtered out revealed patterns about Twitterers' flu illnesses, insomnia, cancer, obesity, allergies, pain and more. Additionally, Dredze and Paul were able to pinpoint the geographical location of many of the tweets, letting them track a few trends, such as the flu and allergy season, by time and place via Twitter.

What else could tracking Twitter data unveil about public health trends and topics? The scientists are talking to public health scientists, some of whom think Twitter content could reveal, in addition to other things, public perceptions concerning health, medications, and more.

Find out more at the full release here. And remember to follow us on Twitter at @RWJF_PubHealth.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.