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Tracking real-time conversation on Twitter to gain insights into marijuana use

As more and more states in the US legalize medical and recreational marijuana use, our researchers measured the impact of increased usage on individuals, as well as the motivating factors behind usage, and the effects of usage over time. 

Twitter holds a bounty of information about social issues, with individuals sharing unsolicited opinions in real time. As a leader in public health research, our researchers analyzed these data and made them publicly available. Working in partnership, our subject matter experts and data scientists mined publicly available tweets about cannabis as well as user profile data to capture insights about this evolving public health issue. 

The result of these efforts is CannabisConvo, a dynamic website and powerful tool that provided real-time information to enable researchers and policymakers to discover new trends, build a richer picture of the online conversation, and make informed policy decisions.

As of the site’s launch in January 2017, we have analyzed and categorized more than 80 million cannabis-related tweets, averaging over 3 million new tweets per month.

Uncovering Trends in Conversations about Marijuana

As people tweet, CannabisConvo analyzed the text to identify messages relating to marijuana, cannabis, or pot and other slang terms. The data was then processed and organized in several ways, such as by what’s trending, word similarity, and use of a term over time.

Using these data, our data scientists generated visualizations and applications to help researchers, policymakers, and the general public understand conversations on Twitter about cannabis.

For example, in mid-December 2015 the words “North” and “Korea” were trending in marijuana-related tweets. The What's Trending tool helped trace this spike to an article in High Times magazine about Chinese tourists in North Korea purchasing marijuana at low prices.

Insights on Twitter Communities Formed by Cannabis Dispensaries

In a recent study that illustrated the power of CannabisConvo, we investigated how California cannabis dispensaries form their own communities, share information about use, and market their retail products using Twitter. A sample of 125 dispensaries from the Bay Area and Greater Los Angeles were organized into several communities based upon their shared followers.

Studies were underway to better understand how characteristics of dispensaries—such as type of organization and availability of delivery services—affect community formation and various functions of Twitter use.

Beyond Cannabis Tracking

The study of Twitter used by cannabis dispensaries represented a new chapter in interdisciplinary research that leverages our expertise in data science, public health, and the social sciences. By combining this expertise with innovative digital methodologies, we aimed to better understand complex social and public health issues like the retail marijuana markets that are emerging across the United States.

By developing tools to study digital information in real time, our scientists were able to systematically measure emergent trends in drug use and other important health issues. We saw numerous applications for such tools as we continued to broaden our capabilities to other emerging health and public policy issues.