Twitter 'big data' can be used to monitor HIV and drug-related behavior, study shows

February 27, 2014 by Enrique Rivero

Real-time social media like Twitter could be used to track HIV incidence and drug-related behaviors with the aim of detecting and potentially preventing outbreaks, a new UCLA-led study shows.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Preventive Medicine, suggests it may be possible to predict sexual risk and drug use behaviors by monitoring , mapping where those messages come from and linking them with data on the geographical distribution of HIV cases. The use of various drugs had been associated in previous studies with HIV sexual risk behaviors and transmission of infectious disease.

"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," said Sean Young, assistant professor of family medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and co-director of the Center for Digital Behavior at UCLA.

Founded by Young, the new interdisciplinary center brings together academic researchers and private sector companies to study how social media and mobile technologies can be used to predict and change behavior. (See the center's Twitter account.)

Other studies have examined how Twitter can be used to predict outbreaks of infections like influenza, said Young, who is also a member of the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine; UCLA's Center for HIV Identification, Prevention and Treatment Services; and the UCLA AIDS Institute. "But 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," he said.

For the study, researchers collected more than 550 million tweets between May 26 and Dec. 9, 2012, and created an algorithm to find words and phrases in them suggesting drug use or potentially risky behaviors, such as "sex" or "get high." They then plotted those tweets on a map to discover where they originated, running statistical models to see if these were areas where HIV cases had been reported.

The algorithm captured 8,538 tweets indicating sexually risky behavior and 1,342 suggesting stimulant drug use. The geographical data on HIV cases to which researchers linked the tweets came from AIDSVu.org, an interactive online map that illustrates the prevalence of HIV in the U.S.; this mapping data was from 2009.

The states with the largest proportion of geo-located tweets, both general as well as HIV-related, were California (9.4 percent), Texas (9.0 percent), New York (5.7 percent) and Florida (5.4 percent). On a per capita basis, the largest raw number of HIV risk–related tweets came from the District of Columbia, Delaware, Louisiana and South Carolina. States with the highest per capita rate of tweets were Utah, North Dakota and Nevada.

When the researchers linked the tweets to data on HIV cases, they found a significant relationship between those indicating risky behavior and counties where the highest numbers of HIV cases were reported. 

Based on this study, the researchers conclude that it is possible to collect "big data" on real-time like Twitter about sexual and drug use behaviors, create a map of where the tweets are occur and use this information to understand and possibly predict where HIV cases and drug use occur.

The study's main weakness, the researchers say, is that the HIV data comes from 2009, so in order to test if this approach can be used to predict future behaviors and outbreaks there is a need for a "gold standard" of frequently updated data. In this way, tweets can be accessed instantly to compare them with disease outbreaks. 

The study does however demonstrate the feasibility of using real-time social networking to identify and map HIV risk-related communications and link them to national HIV data, the researchers write.

"This study was designed to call for future research to understand the potential cost-effectiveness of this approach and to refine methods of using real-time social networking data for HIV and public health prevention and detection," they conclude.

Explore further: Overcoming barriers to partner notification of HIV

Related Stories

Overcoming barriers to partner notification of HIV

February 5, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Among the most difficult barriers to preventing the spread of HIV are those that hamper the notification of sexual and needle-sharing partners that they have been exposed to the infection. In a new study, ...

Researchers look to reduce Hep C infections with "Staying safe intervention" for injecting drug users

February 17, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—Despite a number of social/behavioral intervention and educational programs, the spread of hepatitis C (HCV) in people who inject drugs (PWIDs) remains a chronic problem.  Now, researchers affiliated with ...

Risk of HIV infection is high during pregnancy and the postpartum period

February 25, 2014
Women living in world regions where HIV infection is common are at high risk of acquiring HIV infection during pregnancy and the postpartum period, according to a study by US researchers published in this week's PLOS Medicine. ...

Combo of social media, behavior psychology leads to HIV testing, better health behaviors

September 5, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Can social media be used to create sustainable changes in health behavior? A UCLA study published Sept. 3 in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrates that an approach that combines ...

Parent-teen involvement deters Hispanic youth from substance use, risky sexual behaviors

January 17, 2014
Without parental guidance, Hispanic youths are at increased risk of contracting HIV because they are more likely to engage in substance abuse and risky sex behaviors, a new University of Michigan study found.

Felony HIV disclosure law criminalizes illness

December 4, 2013
Michigan's felony HIV disclosure law is driven by stigma and fear rather than medical science, according to a new University of Michigan study.

Recommended for you

Scientists divulge latest in HIV prevention

July 25, 2017
A far cry from the 1990s "ABC" campaign promoting abstinence and monogamy as HIV protection, scientists reported on new approaches Tuesday allowing people to have all the safe sex they want.

Girl's HIV infection seems under control without AIDS drugs

July 24, 2017
A South African girl born with the AIDS virus has kept her infection suppressed for more than eight years after stopping anti-HIV medicines—more evidence that early treatment can occasionally cause a long remission that, ...

Meds by monthly injection might revolutionize HIV care (Update)

July 24, 2017
Getting a shot of medication to control HIV every month or two instead of having to take pills every day could transform the way the virus is kept at bay.

Candidate AIDS vaccine passes early test

July 24, 2017
The three-decade-old quest for an AIDS vaccine received a shot of hope Monday when developers announced that a prototype triggered the immune system in an early phase of human trials.

Paris spotlight on latest in AIDS science

July 21, 2017
Some 6,000 HIV experts gather in Paris from Sunday to report advances in AIDS science as fading hopes of finding a cure push research into new fields.

Scientists elicit broadly neutralizing antibodies to HIV in calves

July 20, 2017
Scientists supported by the National Institutes of Health have achieved a significant step forward, eliciting broadly neutralizing antibodies (bNAbs) to HIV by immunizing calves. The findings offer insights for HIV vaccine ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.