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Using Social Data to Improve LGBT Health

A New Measurement Tool to Gain Insight on HIV

This article was originally published in the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine News Center

Northwestern Medicine scientists are developing a software tool that will simplify and streamline social network data collection related to HIV transmission.

Michelle Birkett, PhD, and Gregory Phillips II, PhD, MS, research assistant professors of Medical Social Sciences and co-principal investigators, plan to advance netCanvas, a software framework developed by their team to better understand how HIV transmission is influenced by social and contextual systems.

“Marginalized communities – such as gender and sexual minorities – experience profound disparities in their health, but the exact pathways which produce those disparities are difficult to delineate, as stigma produces multiple intersecting individual, relational and environmental conditions, all of which may combine to affect the health of a population,” Birkett said. “However, the social and contextual systems of these communities are difficult to understand using traditional measurement instruments.”

The existing netCanvas framework allows for the quick and accurate capture of complex network and contextual data from research study participants through an interactive touchscreen interface and user-centered design. Using the software, the scientists developed a standalone survey administration tool, which not only allows for the capture of multilevel network, longitudinal, geospatial, contextual and behavioral data, but also enables scientists to gather data without any advanced technological expertise. The result was a new specific interview protocol, netCanvas-R.

“We are trying to help simplify the collection and streamline the management of social data, thereby allowing health and HIV researchers to assess more nuanced associations between contextual factors and the spread of infectious disease. This also increases our ability to use data in real time,” Phillips said.

Both Birkett and Phillips are part of the IMPACT LGBT Health and Development Program at Northwestern University, which conducts research that aims to improve the health of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community and to increase understanding of the development of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Another current research project within the IMPACT program, RADAR, seeks to identify and understand the connections among sexually transmitted infections (like HIV), drug and alcohol use, and romantic or sexual relationship patterns over time among young men who have sex with men.

In collaboration with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the project, lead by Brian Mustanski, PhD, Director of the Institute for Sexual and Gender Minority Health and Wellbeing and Professor of Medical Social Sciences, marks the first time that one study will look at drivers of new HIV infections at multiple levels– the genetics of the virus, effects of medications, individual behavior, sexual partner and relationship characteristics, networks, and community-level factors.