If you live in Texas, you’re more likely to tweet about donuts than other food–and one of your most-tweeted physical “activities” is eating. Donuts top the list in California, too, but tomatoes aren’t far behind, and Californians are also more likely to dance.
Not surprisingly, maybe, California also tends to score better on national health rankings. So can Twitter serve as a real-time status check on our collective health?
Researchers from the University of Vermont’s CompStoryLab analyzed 50 million geotagged tweets from 49 states (no Hawaii) and then crunched some numbers to figure out–very roughly–how many calories people in each state might be taking in and burning through exercise.
The patterns correlate with how healthy states actually are. In other words, you are what you tweet. In many states with the highest obesity rates, for example, the people tweet more about high-calorie food than working out.
“Despite its limitations, Twitter has been shown to be a good place to detect health conditions and gather public health information,” say Sharon Alajajian and Jake Ryland Williams, two of the researchers.
In the past, researchers studying Twitter have seen that states with higher smoking rates have more tweets about cancer. The less people tweet about exercise, the more they tweet about getting sick. The more they tweet about watching TV, the more likely they are to be overweight. And the list goes on.
In this study, the researchers created a database of foods, assigned them each a number of calories, and did the same for activities–everything from running to getting nails done. While the resulting “calorie balance” is far from exact, they say it works as a rough way to compare different places.
A map shows which food and activity was most significant for each state. “At a real-time level, this can give us insight into when people are collectively talking about particular foods or activities and why,” the researchers say.
They’re planning to fine-tune the algorithms to make the data more useful for anyone working in public health. Check out their prototype tool, the “Lexicocalirometer,” for more details on each state.