Professor at N.C. A&T Harnesses Social Media Data to Study Opioid Epidemic in NC


EAST GREENSBORO, N.C. (March 6, 2019) – Twitter is the research platform of choice for Mohd Anwar, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University. Anwar is using the social networking site to study the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Last fall he began collaborating with RTI International, an independent, nonprofit research institute, to study the extent to which social media data can be harnessed as an indicator of the opioid epidemic. His research explores the power of social media to gauge the progression of the opioid crisis in near-real time and to understand how data extracted from social media platforms correlate with ground truths such as drug overdoses.

a and t associate professor Mohd Anwar

Anwar gathers, mines and scientifically translates public opioid-related Twitter data in North Carolina, to understand and identify interventional opportunities. In February, he presented preliminary results on the content and changing patterns of opioid-related conversations occurring in the North Carolina Twitterspace, as well as implications for future research comparing subgroups, using larger samples, and integrating additional social media platforms.

“RTI’s collaboration with Dr. Anwar offers a key component – social media – in RTI’s Data Fusion Center, whose mission is to integrate multiple existing data sources in ways that help us track and potentially mitigate the nation’s opioid crisis,” said Kevin Conway, a senior behavioral health scientist at RTI. “We expected the social media data stream to be highly exploratory and that it would lag behind other data components. To our surprise, working with Dr. Anwar rapidly accelerated our progress on the social media front.”

Conway says, based upon very preliminary results of Twitter posts in North Carolina from 2009 to 2018, mentions of prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids (including fentanyl) follow a trend that resembles the three phases (i.e., prescription opioids, heroin and synthetic opioids) of the opioid epidemic as indicated by opioid overdose deaths in the state during this nine-year period.

Anwar’s research signals that social media platforms like Twitter represent alternative indicators of the evolving opioid crisis and provide nearly omnipresent, timely and readily-ingested data for research purposes.

Anwar is the first N.C. A&T faculty member to be selected as an RTI University Scholar. Scholars take leave from their home institutions to collaborate with RTI researchers, advancing research in priority areas of national need. Anwar’s cohort includes researchers from Duke University, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.