To the casual observer, Twitter can seem like a vehicle for venting frustrations, poking fun at public figures or getting in trouble for things you said 10 years before he was famous. But what if all those tweets, across the spectrum of emotions (frustration, anger, fear, hope) could be mined from data to present a composite of the overall mental health of a nation?
That's the thinking behind a recent study of nearly 245,000 COVID-19-related geotagged tweets — tweets that discussed the pandemic and had geographic information embedded in them — from across Australia. The goal was to identify changes in mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, examining the time period from January 2020 to May 2021. The study describes how it used "machine learning and spatial mapping to classify, measure, and map changes in the mental health signals of the Australian public and track their change throughout the different phases of the pandemic in eight Australian capitals.”
Xiao Huang, assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences and the Center for Advanced Space Technologies, both at the U of A, was the study's second author and corresponding author. Huang explained, "The term 'social sensing' has emerged as a hot research direction in many domains due to the proliferation of publicly available platforms Generally refers to a set of data collection paradigms where data is collected from humans or devices on their behalf. In this effort, the data collection paradigm we designed aims to intelligently retrieve the emotions and sentiments of the public automatically.”
Not surprisingly, the researchers saw a shift from pessimism early on of the pandemic to greater optimism in the middle phase, but then another turn to greater pessimism in the later phase, perhaps due to concerns with the launch of the vaccine. While these general sentiments could probably be guessed from watching or reading the news, what geotagging provides is a much more granular picture. Where were feelings of fear or pessimism most concentrated? In what cities? And in what specific areas of those cities?
Siqin Wang of the University of Queensland, who led the international research team, noted that "a clear understanding of when and where people show higher levels of signals mental health pessimists provides important information through which the allocation of finite mental health facilities can be determined." deployed.”
He added: "We have found that the provision of mental health services and the implementation of mental health policies clearly need to be adjusted in different phases of the pandemic, or even in any public health emergency."
Social screening would appear to have important implications for how government and health authorities deploy resources to ensure they reach where they are needed most when they are needed most.
The application of social screening would also appear to have uses far beyond the realm of public health. “Although we applied keyword restrictions to retrieve tweets that talked about COVID-19 in this study only,” Huang said, “I think the idea of sentiment analysis across social media platforms can benefit various applications, such as collecting opinions about products or services, complement official polls or even adjust election campaign strategies and predict election results.”
That said, all of this comes with the caveat that the people tweeting may not be a completely accurate reflection of the general population, as they are younger and may have more access to digital devices.
The article, titled "Times are a-changin': Tracking changes in mental health cues since initial phase to the later phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia", was published in British Medical Journal Global Health. Wang and Huang's coauthors included Tao Hu, Mengxi Zhang, Zhenlong Li, Huan Ning, Jonathan Corcoran, Asaduzzaman Khan, Yan Liu, Jiajia Zhang, and Xiaoming Li. About the Department of Geosciences: The Department of Geosciences has its origin in 1873 when the first mineralogy course was offered at the University of Arkansas. Our faculty and students examine the processes that form and shape the Earth's surface, the natural resources we use, how water and ecosystems are interconnected, variations in climate and paleoclimate, the use and development of geospatial methods and the human geography of ethnicity, gender, social class, social inequality, and religion. The department won $2 million in research awards in fiscal year 2020, and our students benefit from more than $3 million in scholarship funds donated by generous alumni. For more information about the Department of Geosciences, please visit our website.
About the University of Arkansas: As Arkansas' flagship institution, the U of A provides an internationally competitive education in more than 200 academic programs. Founded in 1871, the U of A contributes more than $2.2 billion to the Arkansas economy through teaching new knowledge and skills, entrepreneurship and career development, discovery through research and creative activity, while also providing training for professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation ranks the U of A in the top 3% of US colleges and universities with the highest level of research activity. USA. UU. News & World Report classifies the U of A among the best public universities in the nation. See how the U of A is working to build a better world at Arkansas Research News.