You are what you tweet

As well as being a great tool for keeping up with celebrity gossip, Twitter can also be a great way to track public health trends, researchers find.

July 13, 2011 15:15
1 minute read.

Twitter (do not publish again). (photo credit: Avi Katz)

As well as keeping people up to date on the latest celebrity gossip and current events, social networking site Twitter can be use a useful resource in tracking important public health trends, researchers have found.

Two computer scientists at Johns Hopkins University, who used software to sift through two billion public tweets, found that Twitter could actually be a useful way to monitor how the public treats health issues.

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The researchers were able to determine which medicines people were using to treat certain conditions. "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," said Mark Dredze, one of the researchers.

Analysis of the posts also revealed that tweeters were using the wrong medicine to treat a whole host of medical conditions. By using their extensive medical knowledge, the researches picked up on a number of medicines that were misused. "We found that some people tweeted that they were taking antibiotics for the flu," said Michael J. Paul, the second researcher. "But antibiotics don't work on the flu, which is a virus, and this practice could contribute to the growing antibiotic resistance problems. So these tweets showed us that some serious medical misconceptions exist out there."

Although Twitter posts are made up only of information that users are willing to share with others, analyzing the data has been proven to be a very useful tool in analyzing people's habits, Dredze and Paul explain.

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