A new study led by North Carolina State University has found that Twitter and online new articles could be used effectively to track the timing and location of invasive insect spread in the United States and globally. These findings suggest that such sources are promising for filling gaps when official data are not widely available.
“The idea was to explore if we could use this data to fill in some of the information gaps about pest spread, and ultimately, to support the development of better predictive models of where pest spread is happening, and when to use costly control measures,” said study lead author Laura Tateosian, an associate professor of Geospatial Analytics at NC State. “Even though these are not formal scientific sources, we found that we could clearly see some of the major events that were occurring about two invasive pests in the news, and on Twitter.”
The scientists tracked Tweets and online news articles (published between 2011 and 2021) about two invasive insects: the spotted lanternfly and the tomato leaf miner (Tuta absoluta). The former – first spotted in the U.S. in 2014 – is an insect native to Asia which can damage or even destroy grapes, cherries, hops, certain lumber trees, and other plants. The latter – often nicknamed the “tomato Ebola” – is native to South America, and was first discovered in Spain in 2006 before spreading to Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
“While some invasive insects have reached their global range, in both of these cases, the pests are actively spreading,” said study co-author Ariel Saffer, a graduate student in Geospatial Analytics at NC State. “We launched this as a proof-of-concept study to see if it would be scientifically reasonable to use these sources to track pest spread. We compared information in places where the insects were known to be present to see if these sources accurately captured existing knowledge.”
The analysis revealed that activity on Twitter and in news stories reflected some of the patterns in official surveys, such as the pests’ seasonal cycles, and major outbreaks. In Pennsylvania – where the spotted lanternfly was first found – news articles uncovered one county not listed in the official records.
“News media and social media have the potential to give you more immediate insight into what’s going on, especially if scientific information on insect spread is not immediately published in scientific literature, or not widely available to other scientists. Also, relying on data from scientific publications can sometimes offer a patchwork coverage of space and time, depending on when that study happened. It can be hard to get aggregated information in continuous time, especially at the global scale, as that information can be managed by multiple agencies,” Saffer concluded.
The study is published in the journal Computers, Environment and Urban Systems.
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