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In a new study called Tweets in the Streets, social epidemiologist Ketan Shankardass and his team are hoping to find a way to gauge people’s emotions through Twitter.

Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Which neighbourhood in Toronto is the happiest? Is it Leslieville, with its hip cafés and restaurants? Or maybe the Annex, with its large and carefree student population?

Researchers at St. Michael's Hospital are developing a new tool to find out and they believe that the answer could help cities provide better services to their citizens.

In a new study called Tweets in the Streets, social epidemiologist Ketan Shankardass and his team are hoping to find a way to gauge people's emotions through Twitter. The study will analyze the tweets of more than a hundred participants across Canada in real time, tying each tweet to nine basic feelings, ranging from happiness to frustration.

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"This can really be useful for city planners, people working in health and social services or emergency-response people," Dr. Shankardass said. "They could use this wealth of free, geolocated data about people's emotions, and not look at it at an individual level. I mean we're not interested in diagnosing individual Twitter users with various emotional maladies, but we're interested at the population level."

Dr. Shankardass hopes to eventually use such data to tackle some of the most pressing issues of the day. If a local government can better identify which part of a city isn't getting the resources it needs, he said, then the city will ultimately be better off.

Those issues could range from something as mundane as commuters frustrated by an unreliable transit system to people expressing grief after a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

"If you have a situation that's a little bit less clear what's actually happening … and you don't know the full extent of what's happening until enough time has elapsed, this would help identify where in the city people are experiencing emotional problems, and that could indicate where things are happening."

For example, if a massive flood were to occur because of climate change, Dr. Shankardass said, the tool could help pinpoint which part of the city was the most affected.

'With Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it's not like everyone in the city was equally affected. Certain parts of the city were totally displaced and certain parts of the city were safer," he said.

The study is recruiting active Twitter users who live or work in major Canadian cities.

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