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New public tool uses Twitter posts to gain insights about marijuana use

January 26, 2017

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC--Journalists, researchers, policymakers, and the public looking to gain new insights about the use of marijuana can now turn to CannabisConvo.

The website, created by public health researchers and data scientists at RTI International, is a social media analytics tool that uses real-time information gathered from tweets to explore the impact of increased marijuana usage, motivating factors behind usage, and the effects of usage over time. This information helps identify emerging trends and paint a richer picture of the online conversation, which can help inform policy decisions, public awareness, and research agendas.

"For first-time users, we've outlined an example of how the tools on CannabisConvo can be used to identify top trending terms and interpret what they mean," said Ian Thomas, a research data scientist at RTI. "In the example, we noticed in mid-December that 'North' and 'Korea' were trending in marijuana-related tweets. Using the What's Trending tool, we were able to trace this spike to a popular article that High Times published about Chinese tourists in North Korea purchasing marijuana at low prices."

Thomas continued, "In this case, researchers or policymakers, for example, may be interested in investigating further how tourists buy marijuana in one country and then resell it in another country, the ways in which marijuana is transported by tourists, and/or the economics of why it's suddenly so cheap in North Korea."

As people tweet, CannabisConvo analyzes the text to identify messages relating to marijuana, cannabis, or slang terms such as "pot." The data can then be processed and organized in several ways, such as by what's trending, word similarity, and frequency of term usage over time. Visualizations of this information are provided in the tool to help users understand these cannabis conversations.

"People use social media as a way to freely share their opinions on a variety of topics, including marijuana use," said Gary Zarkin, Ph.D., vice president of the Behavioral Health and Criminal Justice Research Division at RTI International and part of the team responsible for creating the new tool. "We created CannabisConvo to gather and analyze all this information in real time so that it can be used in meaningful ways. Further, it provides a prototype for any other trending topic we, or a client, may want to explore and monitor via Twitter."

To date, more than 80 million tweets relating to marijuana have been analyzed, averaging over 3 million new tweets per month.
To learn more, visit the CannabisConvo impact story.

RTI International

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