November 13th, 2008
Google Flu Trends uses an analysis of search terms entered into their search engine as a means of identifying localised flu outbreaks well before the aggregate data flowing through official channels identifies the existence of an epidemic.
We compared our query counts with data from a surveillance system managed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and discovered that some search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. By counting how often we see these search queries, we can estimate how much flu is circulating in various regions of the United States.
My one qualm about this sort of thing is that the efficacy of such a fairly benign real-time search query analysis is only going to encourage some government to demand real-time access to Google's search query data so they can carry out this sort of data mining for themselves. I can hear the minister on the Today programme now: "If we can prevent just one [insert hot topic of the day here] then the loss of privacy is a small price to pay."1
For the avoidance of doubt: the problem isn't with the concept of analysing search query data for trends and patterns that might not show up as rapidly by other means, it's with the prospect that the government might end up being the ones doing the searching. I'll freely concede that there's not the slightest suggestion that this is an imminent prospect, but I guarantee you that a certain mindset will find the idea extremely appealing. You know the sort: ministers who go round claiming that people keep coming up to her in the street and begging her to hurry up and issue them a National ID Card.
[Via Kevan Davis]