Health science and computer science departments use social media as a research tool


Thanks to ever-evolving and changing technology, researchers now have the ability to track trends on social media and use the findings in their research.

This is precisely what the BYU Health Science and Computer Science departments did in a recent study looking at Adderall abuse. The two departments joined efforts and created a computational health science research group to effectively research health science using state-of-the-art technology.

“Many platforms, such as Twitter, provide an application programming interface that enables us to download content directly using automated programs,” said Scott Burton, who is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Computer Science. “Then we can automatically sift through millions of tweets that match certain terms or use text mining algorithms to group words that are frequently used together.”

Using this technology, the researchers were able to analyze 213,633 tweets that mentioned Adderall from 132,099 unique users from November 2011 to May 2012, Burton said.

From the data, they were then able to track trends over time as well as find correlations between location and mention of other keywords.

A benefit of using social media for research is that the researchers can collect a large amount of information from around the world in a short period of time, said health science professor Carl Hansen. They do not have to choose a particular group to study and generalize the data.

“Because you are observing the natural interactions of people, they are not biased or disturbed by the presence of researchers. In addition, social media is social, and we can observe relationships between users,” Burton said.

The BYU research group is not the first one to use social media data for research.  BYU is unique, though, in its collaboration between health and computer scientists. “(This) enables us to draw on the strengths of both areas, and do work that neither side could do on its own,” Burton said.

According to the researchers, there are many opportunities for research using social media. The Adderall study provided a starting point for future research at BYU.

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