Social media may be used to track outbreaks of HIV

By Camille H, Parent Herald March 04, 02:25 pm

Real-time social media like Twitter may be used to identify and target potential outbreaks of HIV, a new study from the University of California (UCLA) found.

The researchers involved in the study gathered 550 million tweets over a span of six and a half months and used a specialized algorithm that identified tweets about potentially risky sexual behaviors or drug use - two factors directly associated with the transmission of infectious diseases.

Researchers then plotted the locations of the tweets on a map and compared them to the geographic data of HIV cases. They found that there was indeed a significant relationship between the location of the tweets and the counties that have high rates of HIV incidences.

Published in the peer-reviewed journal Preventive Medicine, Sean Young, assistant professor of family medicine at the David Goffen School of Medicine at UCLA and co-director of the Center for Digital Behavior at UCLA, said in a statement: "Ultimately, these methods suggest that we can use 'big data' from social media for remote monitoring and surveillance of HIV risk behaviors and potential outbreaks."

The new interdisciplinary center founded by Young continuously brings together academic researchers and private sector companies to study how social media and mobile technologies can be used to predict and change behavior.

Previous studies have examined how Twitter can be used to prevent outbreaks of influenza. Young stressed that "this 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."

Based on the data gathered, Young and his colleagues found that the largest proportion of geo-located tweets, both general as well as HIV-related, were found in California, Texas, New York and Florida.

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