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 tweets, 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.