In what could be a powerful public health tool, a team of scientists have invented a new instrument for measuring
the caloric content of social media posts - like tweets.
Peter Dodds, a
scientist at the University of Vermont, who co-led the invention of the
new device - called a Lexicocalorimeter, said, "It's a bit like having a
satellite image of how people in a state or city are eating and
‘A new instrument, called a Lexicocalorimeter, for measuring the caloric content of social media posts - like tweets has been developed by researchers.’
A study of the new device was published February 10, in the journal PLOS ONE
Of course, people don't actually eat tweets. Instead, the
Lexicocalorimeter gathers tens of millions of geo-tagged Twitter posts
from across the country and fishes out thousands of food words - like
"apples," "ice cream," and "green beans." At the same time, it finds
thousands of activity-related terms - like "watching TV," "skiing," and
even "alligator hunting" and "pole dancing." These giant bags of words
get scored - based on data about typical calorie content of foods and
activity burn rates - and then compiled into two measures: "caloric
input" and "caloric output."
The ratio of these two measures begins to paint a picture that might
be of interest not just to athletes or weight-watchers, but also to
mayors, public health officials, epidemiologists, or others interested
in "public policy and collective self-awareness," the team of scientists
write in their new study.
The Lexicocalorimeter is open for visits by the public, and the
current version gives a portrait of each of the contiguous US states.
For example, the tweet flow into the device suggests that Vermont
consumes more calories, per capita, than the overall average for the US.
Why? Well, at the top of its list of words that push the Green Mountain
State to the gourmand's side of the ledger is "bacon" - tied for
second in the US when states are ranked by bacon's contribution to
caloric balance. "We love to tweet about bacon," says Chris Danforth, a
UVM scientist and mathematician who co-led the new study.
But Vermont also expends more calories than average, the device
indicates, thanks to relatively frequent appearances of the words
"skiing," "running," "snowboarding," and, yes, "sledding." And why does
the Lexicocalorimeter suggest that New Jersey expends fewer calories
than the US average? Below-average on "running" while the top of its
low-intensity activity list is "getting my nails done."
Overall, Colorado ranks first in the US for its caloric balance
("noodles" plus "running" seem to be a svelte pair) while Mississippi
comes in last with relatively high representation of "cake" and
DASHBOARD FOR HEALTH
The new PLOS ONE
study suggests that the Lexicocalorimeter
could provide a new - and real-time - measure of the US population's
health. And the study shows that the device's remotely sensed results
correlate very closely with other traditional measures of US well-being,
like obesity and diabetes rates. For the study, the team of scientists
explored about 50 million geo-tagged tweets from 2011 and 2012 and
report that "pizza" was the dominant contributor to the measure of
"calories in" in nearly every state. The dominant contributor to
calories out: "watching TV or movies."
The nine scientists - led by professors and students at the
University of Vermont's Computational Story Lab as well as researchers
at the University of California Berkley, WIC in East Boston, MIT,
University of Adelaide, and Drexel University - are quick to point out
that the ratio of calories in to calories out in the new study are "not
meaningful as absolute numbers, but rather have power for comparisons,"
The Lexicocalorimeter is part of a larger effort by the University
of Vermont team to build a series of online instruments that can
quantify health-related behaviors from social media. "Given the right
tools, our mobile phones will very soon know more about us than we know
about ourselves," says UVM's Chris Danforth. "While the
Lexicocalorimeter is focused on eating and exercise, and the Hedonometer
is measuring happiness, the methodology we're building is far more
general, and will eventually contribute to a dashboard of public health
measures to complement traditional sources of data."
The bigger goal: "enable real-time sensing at the population level,
and help health care providers make date-driven recommendations for
public policy," says Danforth.
Other measures of public health and behavior the team is considering
adding to the dashboard? "Sleep is a huge health issue," says UVM's
Peter Dodds. "We would like to make an Insomniameter. Then there could
be a Hangoverometer."