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Using Google Trends to Inform the Population Size Estimation and Spatial Distribution of Gay, Bisexual, and Other Men Who Have Sex With Men: Proof-of-concept Study

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Background:We must triangulate data sources to understand best the spatial distribution and population size of marginalized populations to empower public health leaders to address population-specific needs. Existing population size estimation techniques are difficult and limited. Objective:We sought to identify a passive surveillance strategy that utilizes internet and social media to enhance, validate, and triangulate population size estimates of gay, bisexual, and other men who have sex with men (gbMSM). Methods:We explored the Google Trends platform to approximate an estimate of the spatial heterogeneity of the population distribution of gbMSM. This was done by comparing the prevalence of the search term "gay porn" with that of the search term "porn." Results:Our results suggested that most cities have a gbMSM population size between 2% and 4% of their total population, with large urban centers having higher estimates relative to rural or suburban areas. This represents nearly a double up of population size estimates compared to that found by other methods, which typically find that between 1% and 2% of the total population are gbMSM. We noted that our method was limited by unequal coverage in internet usage across Canada and differences in the frequency of porn use by gender and sexual orientation. Conclusions:We argue that Google Trends estimates may provide, for many public health planning purposes, adequate city-level estimates of gbMSM population size in regions with a high prevalence of internet access and for purposes in which a precise or narrow estimate of the population size is not required. Furthermore, the Google Trends platform does so in less than a minute at no cost, making it extremely timely and cost-effective relative to more precise (and complex) estimates. We also discuss future steps for further validation of this approach.
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