Friday, 2 October 2015

Using Twitter data to provide insights into health conditions and health-related events (by Wasim Ahmed)

My research examines social media data, such as data derived from Twitter, to provide insights into health conditions and health related events.

Twitter has 316 million monthly active users and there are 500 million tweets per day.  It can be used as a source of data for social science research both current and historical in and of itself, but it can also be used to complement more traditional data sources, such as surveys and interviews.  I lead the New Social Media New Social Science Network (NSMNSS) Twitter account, which has  members from across academia and industry who explore the methodological implications of social media research.

One of my case studies focuses on the Ebola outbreak of 2014, where I have amassed at least 26 million tweets. Examining tweets allows the real-time monitoring of public views and opinions. These can be monitored by people from the health sector who can then disseminate accurate information appropriately.  In some instances, data derived from Twitter allows geographical surveillance, and has the potential to be used to identify locations of possible infectious disease outbreaks.  Twitter has proved useful in emergency and crisis situations.

There are often specific methodological, ethical, privacy, and copyright issues which require careful consideration, and my PhD research also critically considers these.  I am also aiming to identify and evaluate the software that can be used by social scientists or those from the health sector, to analyse Twitter. This is very important, as it allows non-computer scientists or non-programmers to retrieve Twitter data in order to ask social science research questions.

Since the start of my PhD I have been disseminating thoughts and findings.  I am an active tweeter, and my research blog has proven to be very popular.  Some posts have appeared in Google Scholar and others have been picked up by the mainstream media.  My research has been mentioned on the British Medical Journal’s (BMJ) blog, ihawkes blog, DiscoverText blogs (for a historical data prize).  I receive regular invitations to academic and industry events and have recorded an audio lecture for a group of Masters students at Western Sydney University on how to retrieve data from Twitter, and on the methodological implications of social media research.

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