Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Google Flu Trends

Now here's a development that's both heartening and disturbing.

Google Flu Trends is a new tool from the philanthropic foundation

The idea is simple but revolutionary. Most statistics about epidemics are trailing indicators, i.e., they collect and organise data after events have happened. Google Flu Trends is about collecting and organising data as searches take place. The idea is that people will do Google searches on terms that affect them at the moment. So searches on "flu" will tend to rise when influenza is doing the rounds, "hayfever" searches will rise when hayfever season hits, and so on. By tracking where the searches are coming from, Google can provide a real-time (as opposed to a lagging) indicator of where official responses need to be targetted.

This is a heartening development because it promises a more rapid response to future pandemics like the Asian Bird Flu virus outbreak. The earlier warning and more precise pinpointing of affected areas can speed up intervention, save lives and waste fewer resources.

This is also a profoundly disquieting development in spite of Google's reminders about its privacy policy. What is being used in Google Flu Trends is aggregate data, but it shows that detailed per-user data with location-specificity is available to Google and can conceivably be used for less philanthropic purposes as well.

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