Using social media to monitor UK alcohol consumption

18 July 2014

Research by Lancaster University researchers, including Patrick Stacey of LUMS, has shown that social media can be used to detect drinking patterns in the UK, including spotting the variations on national holidays and celebrations.

The researchers (PhD student Daniel Kershaw from the HighWire Doctoral Training Centre, Lecturer Dr Matthew Rowe from the School of Computing and Communications and Dr Patrick Stacey from Lancaster University Management School) who wrote the paper Towards Tracking and Analysing Regional Alcohol Consumption Patterns in the UK through the use of Social Media were recently awarded Best Student Paper at the international WebSci14 conference, held on 23-26 June 2014.

Ever-increasing drinking levels have led to calls from public services (for example, police and health services) to assess the effect it is having on people and society. Current research methods that monitor rates of alcohol consumption across the UK are costly, time-consuming, and do not supply sufficiently detailed results, as they look at snapshots of individuals’ drinking patterns, which rely on generalised usage patterns, and post-consumption recall.

As an alternative, this new research looks at using the much cheaper and faster tools of social media, such as Twitter, to monitor the rate of alcohol consumption in regions across the UK, by introducing the Social Media Alcohol Index (SMAI).

By looking at the variation in term usage, and treating the social network – which also records location and time – as a self-reporting sense-network, the SMAI will show variation in drinking patterns on both local and national levels within the UK.

The study used 31.6 million tweets collected over a six-week period, and used the Health and Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) weekly alcohol consumption pattern as a ground truth.

High correlations between the ground truth and the computed SMAI were found on a national and local level, along with the ability to detect variation in consumption on national holidays and celebrations at both local and national levels.

Daniel Kershaw said, “Taking this forward we are looking into the variations of the language used across different geographical locations and social groups. In the near future we will be aiming to enhance our work by collaborating with local public services in order to gain feedback on real-world applications of this research.”