Tool Uses Twitter to Measure State-By-State Trends in Exercise and Calorie Consumption

August 06, 2015|10:43 a.m.| ASTHO Staff

Researchers at the University of Vermont have created an online tool that uses social media to measure how individuals in the United States consume calories. After reviewing approximately 50 million tweets nationwide during 2011 and 2012, the researchers found that Colorado residents tweeted the most about burning calories, while Mississippi residents tweeted about this the least.   

The tool, called the Lexicocalorimeter, reviews public tweets on Twitter for words involving food and exercise (like “cheese,” “hot dog,” “treadmill,” or “gym,”) and uses them to map regional trends using a basic formula based on the words’ frequency by location and relationship to calorie intake or loss. The Lexicocalorimeter’s algorithm uses a ratio of calories consumed to calories burned to calculate each state’s caloric balance and show, for example, if New Hampshire residents are most often tweeting about eating donuts, or if New Mexicans are most commonly tweeting about going to the gym. The researchers are quick to note that their results are “improvable” and represent a small sample size, but that they can potentially be used alongside more traditional survey methods to provide a picture of a state or region’s health.

This is not the first time that researchers have used crowdsourced search terms to try to track public health trends: Google Flu Trends, which was launched in 2008, uses individuals’ anonymized influenza-related Google searches to try to track areas where the disease may have been active during flu season. Early on, it found similarities between users’ searches and official influenza surveillance data, although during the last flu season it changed its algorithms after being criticized for providing inaccurate predictions. As in the case of the Lexicocalorimeter, some researchers note that an adjusted combination of standard CDC surveillance data and Google Flu Trends online data might provide public health experts with the most accurate public health trend information.