Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2015

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Computer Science

First Advisor

Segre, Alberto Maria

First Committee Member

Polgreen, Philip M.

Second Committee Member

Herman, Ted

Third Committee Member

Srinivasan, Padmini

Fourth Committee Member

Street, Nick


How do we model the meaning of words? In domains like information retrieval, words have classically been modeled as discrete entities using 1-of-n encoding, a representation that elides most of a word's syntactic and semantic structure. Recent research, however, has begun exploring more robust representations called word embeddings. Embeddings model words as a parameterized function mapping into an n-dimensional continuous space and implicitly encode a number of interesting semantic and syntactic properties. This dissertation examines two application areas where existing, state-of-the-art terminology modeling improves the task of information extraction (IE) -- the process of transforming unstructured data into structured form. We show that a large amount of word meaning can be learned directly from very large document collections.

First, we explore the feasibility of mining sexual health behavior data directly from the unstructured text of online “hookup" requests. The Internet has fundamentally changed how individuals locate sexual partners. The rise of dating websites, location-aware smartphone apps like Grindr and Tinder that facilitate casual sexual encounters (“hookups"), as well as changing trends in sexual health practices all speak to the shifting cultural dynamics surrounding sex in the digital age. These shifts also coincide with an increase in the incidence rate of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in subpopulations such as young adults, racial and ethnic minorities, and men who have sex with men (MSM). The reasons for these increases and their possible connections to Internet cultural dynamics are not completely understood. What is apparent, however, is that sexual encounters negotiated online complicate many traditional public health intervention strategies such as contact tracing and partner notification. These circumstances underline the need to examine online sexual communities using computational tools and techniques -- as is done with other social networks -- to provide new insight and direction for public health surveillance and intervention programs.

One of the central challenges in this task is constructing lexical resources that reflect how people actually discuss and negotiate sex online. Using a 2.5-year collection of over 130 million Craigslist ads (a large venue for MSM casual sexual encounters), we discuss computational methods for automatically learning terminology characterizing risk behaviors in the MSM community. These approaches range from keyword-based dictionaries and topic modeling to semi-supervised methods using word embeddings for query expansion and sequence labeling. These methods allow us to gather information similar (in part) to the types of questions asked in public health risk assessment surveys, but automatically aggregated directly from communities of interest, in near real-time, and at geographically high-resolution. We then address the methodological limitations of this work, as well as the fundamental validation challenges posed by the lack of large-scale sexual sexual behavior survey data and limited availability of STI surveillance data.

Finally, leveraging work on terminology modeling in Craigslist, we present new research exploring representation learning using 7 years of University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) clinical notes. Using medication names as an example, we show that modeling a low-dimensional representation of a medication's neighboring words, i.e., a word embedding, encodes a large amount of non-obvious semantic information. Embeddings, for example, implicitly capture a large degree of the hierarchical structure of drug families as well as encode relational attributes of words, such as generic and brand names of medications. These representations -- learned in a completely unsupervised fashion -- can then be used as features in other machine learning tasks. We show that incorporating clinical word embeddings in a benchmark classification task of medication labeling leads to a 5.4% increase in F1-score over a baseline of random initialization and a 1.9% over just using non-UIHC training data. This research suggests clinical word embeddings could be shared for use in other institutions and other IE tasks.


health care, information extraction, machine learning, neural networks, public health, text mining


xviii, 150 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 137-150).


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Copyright 2015 Jason Alan Fries