Google Trends is basically a way of looking at what people are focusing on by mapping out their Google searches. Marketing firms have been using Google Trends for some time. The government has, too. Back in 2009, during the swine flu epidemic in the U.S., Google launched Google Flu Trends. The National Institutes of Health found it helped track outbreaks of the disease.
It turns out that when people started to feel feverish and nauseous, they would go to Google to check out their symptoms. While it wasn't a perfect indicator, Google Flu Trends often beat government predictions about flu outbreaks by a week or more. Imagine using the Internet to do the same thing in predicting political unrest.
Now, there's an example of passive crowd-sourcing: get folks to do what they were going to do anyway, and data mine
some analytical info out of it. Sounds like what marketers do every day.
But a fascinating variant of that is the more active version: get some interested folks together (geeks of the world, unite!) and let them search for data, sort it, and publish it. That was the idea for Flu Wiki, which I and two of my colleagues started in 2005 to help prepare for pandemics. Good that we did. We had a pandemic in 2009, and all the prep work done by the feds, by local public health, by us and by others was a huge help, with many lessons learned that were put into play during the pandemic—helped tremendously by the relatively mild nature of the outbreak.
Tracking the spread of bird flu around the world still goes on, both by public health agencies and by interested individuals at the Flu Wiki Forum and other places around flublogia. If you wish, you can try HealthMap and search for H5N1, as an example, or measles, or some other illness or current outbreak.
These days, however there are other urgent concerns, and in Japan, active crowd-sourcing is being used to track radiation levels outside the Fukushima nuclear reactors. From ScienceInsider:
If you want to know what's going on, ask the nerds. As fears swelled over radiation from Japan's battered Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in the days after the 11 March quake, computer-savvy individuals around the globe had an immediate reaction: show people the data. Within days, individuals began tracking down and using the data to create interactive maps and graphs of radiation levels in Japan. Here are some that have stood out as especially useful.
One that I like is Crowd-sourced realtime radiation monitoring in Japan
, which has a great Google Earth-based radiation graphic (still picture here):
The height of the pink columns represents the radiations being reported from various official and unofficial sources, and you get a sense right away as to where geographically the problem areas are.
Now, imagine you are the Japanese government, or the official spokesperson for TEPCO. If you knew these graphics in real time were available to the public, do you think it would affect your communication strategy? How could it not? If your communications are not covering what people can see for themselves, why would they trust you? What, in the end, if you deny the data, makes you different than Baghdad Bob?
Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (Arabic: محمد سعيد الصحاف; born 1940) is a former Iraqi diplomat and politician. He came to wide prominence around the world during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, during which he was the Iraqi Information Minister under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, acting as the mouthpiece for the Baath Party and Saddam's regime. He is best known for his grandiose and grossly unrealistic propaganda broadcasts prior to and during the war, extolling the invincibility of the Iraqi Army and the permanence of Saddam's rule. His announcements were intended for an Iraqi domestic audience subject to Saddam's cult of personality and total state censorship, and were met with widespread derision and amusement by Western nationals and others with access to up-to-date information from international media organizations.
The idea that governments or companies or anyone gets to control information is sooo
20th century. Sure, plenty of things are secret (but ask the Wikileaks folks for how long) while/but plenty of things are out there for anyone enterprising enough to put the data together.
Does this replace health and disaster reporters and journalists? Not at all. It's data for them to vet, just like it's data for us to vet. Sometimes, it'll be vetted by non-journalists with expertise in a particular area (and some of them, like Nate Silver and Glenn Greenwald, will move from blogger to pundit over time.)
Now, is the data on the internet always going to be right? No, but it will get corroborated and corrected. If it raises the right questions, it's done its job. In fact, traditional journalism also makes errors (and sometimes sources are flat-out wrong), so the correction process is always a dynamic one.
Confusion reigned Sunday at a crippled nuclear power plant in northeastern Japan, as emergency workers were pulled from a reactor building after dangerously high levels of radiation were detected in water that had accumulated in a turbine housing unit.
A spokesman for the operator of the Fukushima-Daiichi power plant originally told reporters that radiation had spiked 10 million times the normal levels Sunday, driving workers to flee the facility. Authorities later said those radiation readings were not accurate and that new tests had been ordered.
Once the data is out there, or suggested to be out there, the inquiries will follow. New Scientist:
Austrian researchers have used a worldwide network of radiation detectors – designed to spot clandestine nuclear bomb tests – to show that iodine-131 is being released at daily levels 73 per cent of those seen after the 1986 disaster. The daily amount of caesium-137 released from Fukushima Daiichi is around 60 per cent of the amount released from Chernobyl.
In the end, thanks to crowd-sourcing and the internet, that great 20th century philosopher and sage Daniel Patrick Moynihan will be proven right yet again: you're entitled to your own opinion but you're not entitled to your own facts. And if I have what appear to be the facts, well, you'd better start explaining yourself better.
We are examining the cause of this, but no work is being done there because of the high level of radiation," said a spokesman for the plant's operator Tokyo Electric Power Co (Tepco).
High levels of caesium and other substances are being detected, which usually should not be found in reactor water. There is a high possibility that fuel rods are being damaged," the spokesman added.
Tepco has been criticised for a lack of transparency and failing to provide information more promptly.
Of course, if you're an official in charge, you could anticipate that and start providing transparent information from the beginning. The more of that you do from the beginning, the less of a communications mess you'll have to deal with later.
For some Daily Kos crowd-sourcing on current information on the Fukushima reactors, follow the Japan Nuclear Incident Liveblogs group.