Alberta scientists use machine learning and Twitter to better understand our health

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Many people share their well-being on social media, and University of Alberta scientists are using machine learning and Twitter to better understand your health.

Machine learning is an application of artificial intelligence (AI) that provides computers the ability to automatically learn and improve from experience without being explicitly programmed.

Computing scientists at the university said a machine learning tool called Grebe used data from Twitter to improve their understanding of the health and wellness of residents in Alberta and the rest of Canada.

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“We use machine learning to determine where the location tweets refer to, the dimension of health they are related to, and the emotions expressed in each tweet,” computing science professor Osmar Zaiane said.

“If we can do this properly, we can get a better understanding of what it’s actually like to live in a particular place, in terms of health and wellness.”

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University of Alberta computing scientists said Grebe harnesses the power of machine learning to assist in the work of health monitoring organizations such as the Public Health Agency of Canada and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

“Public health experts are interested in knowing what’s happening in a particular city or province,” Zaiane said.

“While surveys are useful forms of gathering information, self-reports can also be unreliable or inaccurate. This type of tool allows public health experts to study people’s behaviour, in addition to their self-reports.”

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The scientists said they used machine learning to identify physical, emotional, occupational, social spiritual and intellectual health, as well as the emotions expressed in each tweet and the relevant location.

The project began in Edmonton, before expanding to the rest of Alberta and then the remaining provinces.

“Our goal wasn’t to find the trends themselves. Rather, our goal was to build a tool that will let public health professionals and sociologists analyze these trends,” Zaiane said.

“This tool allows experts to go through another medium — in this case Twitter — to verify trends that they’ve found elsewhere, such as through surveys, as well as verifying other research.”

READ MORE: Alberta announces $100M, 5-year investment in artificial intelligence

In February, the Alberta government announced it plans to spend $100 million over five years to attract investment from artificial intelligence-focused tech companies.

The province said the money would go to Alberta Innovates, the province’s research development agency, and the non-profit Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute.

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