Analysis reveals crucial role of social media in self-management of diet-related conditions
Painstaking analysis of hundreds of thousands of tweets by a researcher from the University of Warwick has revealed how Twitter is acting as a lifeline for those with gut-related chronic illness.
Sam Martin, a PhD student from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies (CIM), has used big data mining techniques to reveal a previously unobserved online network of people with Coeliac Disease.
She will present her doctoral research at the British Sociological Society’s Ageing, Body and Society Study Group Conference in London on Friday (28 November).
Harvesting 1,800 messages per hour, from a 15km radius of two cities – London and New York, Sam studied the data and identified an information network discussing the availability of gluten-free food. She not only discovered an information hub, but also found that gaps in knowledge - about where to find gluten free food in the city, how to manage symptoms, and how to avoid risk of cross-contamination - were being filled by the very people who are reliant on the missing material – those with Coeliac Disease, who used hashtags like #coeliac #glutenfree and more to make connections online.
As a Coeliac herself, with a background in web development and data visualisation, Sam has also produced information-sharing smartphone apps based on her own searches for gluten free venues and resources, which allow users to identify suitable cafes and restaurants nearby in London and Paris.
“Having previously lived in London, I know how hard it is to find places that provide gluten free food while on the move in the city but it was only when I started using data mining techniques on Twitter that I began to fully understand how many other people there are out there like me,” said Sam.
“Using co-word and sentiment analysis, I was able to quantify to what extent patients use social networking as a knowledge finding, decision-making or risk aversion tool.
“I used the information I obtained to then visualize the flow of patient interaction by creating virtual maps that compared behaviour in both cities. One example was a person who acted as a facilitator of knowledge – she frequently received requests for information from other users who were not necessarily her followers, but to whom she then connected to others so that they may in turn help Coeliac or gluten free knowledge seekers.”
She describes Twitter as a big organic hub of social digital interaction, that when analysed using data mining methods - reveals a human ecosystem of communication underneath – in this case uncovering a network of Coeliacs. But that, she claims, is just the beginning.
“Digital tools such as social media and apps based on GPS are set to revolutionise the self-management of diet-related illness in the city and may well be used to help manage other conditions such as diabetes or allergies to lactose, nuts, eggs or sulphites, for example,” Sam added.
“I absolutely see my study as a template for many chronic disorders and I’m currently working on producing a toolkit of information which will assist people with other conditions.”
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Issued by Lee Page, Communications Manager, Press and Policy Office, The University of Warwick. Tel: +44 (0)2476 574 255, Mob: +44 (0)7920 531 221. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.