Towards scaling Twitter for digital epidemiology of birth defects

Klein AZ, Sarker A, Weissenbacher D, Gonzalez-Hernandez G. Towards scaling Twitter for digital epidemiology of birth defects. NPJ digital medicine. 2019 Oct 1;2(1):1-9.

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Social media has recently been used to identify and study a small cohort of Twitter users whose pregnancies with birth defect outcomes—the leading cause of infant mortality—could be observed via their publicly available tweets. In this study, we exploit social media on a larger scale by developing natural language processing (NLP) methods to automatically detect, among thousands of users, a cohort of mothers reporting that their child has a birth defect. We used 22,999 annotated tweets to train and evaluate supervised machine learning algorithms—feature-engineered and deep learning-based classifiers—that automatically distinguish tweets referring to the user’s pregnancy outcome from tweets that merely mention birth defects. Because 90% of the tweets merely mention birth defects, we experimented with under-sampling and over-sampling approaches to address this class imbalance. An SVM classifier achieved the best performance for the two positive classes: an F1-score of 0.65 for the “defect” class and 0.51 for the “possible defect” class. We deployed the classifier on 20,457 unlabeled tweets that mention birth defects, which helped identify 542 additional users for potential inclusion in our cohort. Contributions of this study include (1) NLP methods for automatically detecting tweets by users reporting their birth defect outcomes, (2) findings that an SVM classifier can outperform a deep neural network-based classifier for highly imbalanced social media data, (3) evidence that automatic classification can be used to identify additional users for potential inclusion in our cohort, and (4) a publicly available corpus for training and evaluating supervised machine learning algorithms.