Study leader Rumi Chunara and John Brownstein of Boston Children's Hospital's Informatics Program said the amount of data available on social networks like Facebook makes it possible to carry out research efficiently in cohorts of a size that has to date been impractical.
It also allows for deeper research into the impact of the societal environment on conditions like obesity -- research that can be challenging because of cost, difficulties in gathering sufficient sample sizes and the slow pace of data analysis and reporting using traditional reporting and surveillance systems, the researchers said.
"Online social networks like Facebook represent a new high-value, low-cost data stream for looking at health at a population level," Brownstein said in a statement. "The tight correlation between Facebook users' interests and obesity data suggest that this kind of social network analysis could help generate real-time estimates of obesity levels in an area, help target public health campaigns that would promote healthy behavior change, and assess the success of those campaigns."
Chunara, Brownstein and colleagues obtained aggregated Facebook user interest data from users nationally and in New York. They compared the percentages of users interested in healthy activities or television with data from two telephone-based health surveys -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System-Selected Metropolitan/Micropolitan Area Risk Trends and New York City's EpiQuery Community Health Survey.
Both surveys recorded data on body mass index, a reliable measure of obesity, the researchers said.
The study, published in the journal PLOS One, revealed close geographic relationships between Facebook interests and obesity rates.