Google's New Flu Tracker: A Public Health Service
jjenet | November 13, 2008 at 01:44 amby
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Health officials say the chief benefit of Google's Web site is the speed of its data.
Google tracks where flu queries are made and can update the data daily for the new Web site, which shows flu-search activity by state. By comparison, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gathers data on actual flu cases from doctors and patients for reports that are typically a week behind real time.
Google is now keeping track of how many times you search for illnesses and disease. And it's sharing this data with the government.
Some people are calling Google's launch of its Flu Tracker a good thing -- it supposedly will help those who need to know to see what locales the flu seems most prevalent and where it appears to be spreading. It also is supposed to serve as an early warning system for health authorities, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta.
However, not everyone agrees. Opinion blogs around the world are questioning the ethics of such a "tracker." The principal questions concern an individual's right to remain anonymous and the ominous idea that George Orwell's "Big Brother" is watching every move you make -- in this case, every click you click. Google claims that it is only tracking "trends," not individuals who are ill.
Google insists it doesn't keep track of confidential, personal data, only search engine trends, which, it states, remain anonymous because of the way they are structured. However, the Flu Tracker is one way Google executives thought it could share its data beyond "simple trends," according to its corporate site.
Quoting from the company's own blog, Google wanted "to explore if we could go beyond simple trends and accurately model real-world phenomena using patterns in search queries. After meeting with the public health gurus on Google.org's, we decided to focus on outbreaks of infectious disease, which are responsible for millions of deaths around the world each year."
As Google's chief executive Eric Schmidt explained to journalists in London last May, that company's objective is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." One way to do this is to gather personal information and statistically organize it to see what trends emerge -- or, in the case of the Flu Tracker – what illnesses emerge.
In its own defense, Google adds that its Flu Tracker could not be used to identify individuals because it only uses "aggregated counts" about weekly search queries. However, the site also claims to be working in "real time."
Apparently the Flu Tracker has been working longer than its Nov. 11 public launch. The CDC states that a test completed last year showed that Google's new tool found flu outbreaks two weeks quicker than the CDC's tracking devices, which include hospital and state health department reports.
"The sooner we have indication that flu is in a community, the earlier public health officials can take action," said Glen Nowak, spokesperson from CDC. To check the accuracy of last's year's test, five years of search data was contrasted with CDC reports, showing comparable flu incidents in various regions. "The comparison showed that the tracking from both sources coincided, but both parties acknowledge that more testing is needed," Mr. Nowak added.
However, Google has tried to reassure everyone that this sensitive data is in good hands. Its corporate site adds, "Of course, we're keenly aware of the trust that users place in us and of our responsibility to protect their privacy. Flu Trends can never be used to identify individual users . . . The patterns we observe in the data are only meaningful across large populations of Google search users."
Meanwhile, M.I.T. professor Thomas Malone, indicated, "I think we are just scratching the surface of what's possible with collective intelligence," while Google's Eric Schmidt, in his own words, admits, "From a technological perspective, it is the beginning."
The burning question is: the beginning of what?
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