Twitter could shine light on what public health in America really looks like.
That’s what’s being suggested by new research out of the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab, which paints a portrait of how many calories people are burning and eating in different parts of the country via their tweets.
The tweet calorie-counting happens through a wonderfully named online tool called a “Lexicocalorimeter.” The program gathers up millions of geo-tagged tweets and looks through them for food terms like “ice cream” and “apples” as well as activity-related phrases and words like “watching TV” or “skiing.”
Using data about typical calorie content in foods and average number of calories burned by certain activities, these giant groups of words are scored and compiled into two measures “caloric input” and “caloric output.”
“This can be a powerful public health tool,” Peter Dodds, a researcher at the University of Vermont (UVM) who co-led invention of the Lexicocalorimeter, said in a statement. “It’s a bit like having a satellite image of how people in a state or city are eating and exercising,” he said.
And all that data has led to some interesting suggestions about health and fitness in different parts of the U.S.
For one, Vermont loves its bacon. The word is high up on the list of terms that pushes the state heavier on the calories. “We love to tweet about bacon,” Chris Danforth, a UVM scientist who worked on the study, said in a press release.
“Our mobile phones will very soon know more about us than we know about ourselves.”
New Jersey burns fewer calories than most U.S. states, with below-average counts of the word “running” while higher than usual counts of “getting my nails done” for its low-intensity activities.
Collectively, all of this new information could help policymakers better understand health conditions among Americans, as researchers write in the study.
Of course, the measurements aren’t perfect. Tweets can contain language about activities not really being done and foods not really being eaten. This is why researchers say general calorie counts are “not meaningful as absolute numbers, but rather have power for comparisons.”
Nine researchers from institutions including University of California Berkley, WIC in East Boston, MIT, University of Adelaide, and Drexel University took part in the study.
At the University of Vermont, researchers have also created something called the Hedonometer, which measures general happiness levels across Twitter amidst major events like the election of Trump and holidays such as Christmas. The university’s researchers have also thought about creating an Insomniameter for looking at sleep rates or even a Hangoverameter.
Ultimately, all of these tools could be used in real-time, at the touch of a smartphone, as Danforth explained in a statement from the university.
“Given the right tools, our mobile phones will very soon know more about us than we know about ourselves,” he said.