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Thursday, March 27, 2014

In Defense of Google Flu Trends - Alexis C. Madrigal - The Atlantic


MAR 27 2014, 10:27 AM

"In 2008, Google released an experiment called Flu Trends, which attempted to predict the prevalence of the flu from searches that users made for about 40 flu-related queries.

Based on the data up to that point in time, Flu Trends worked really well. The Centers for Disease Control, which had been involved in shaping how it functioned, liked the data that it produced. 

Even the reliable pro-nerd hangout Slashdot headlined their thread 'Google Flu Trends Suggests Limits of Crowdsourcing.'

"We really are excited about the future of using different technologies, including technology like this, in trying to figure out if there's better ways to do surveillance for outbreaks of influenza or any other diseases in the United States," Joseph Bresee, the chief of the epidemiology and prevention branch in the CDC's influenza division, said at the time.

And so, aside from some misplaced nagging about privacy, the new tool was celebrated in the news media. All the big outlets covered it:CNNThe New York Timesthe Wall Street Journal, and many, many more.

Flu Trends fit the golden image of Google, circa 2008: a company that did gee-whiz things just because they were good ideas.

This was the era of, formed under a guy named Larry Brilliant, who said things like, "I envision a kid (in Africa) getting online and finding that there is an outbreak of cholera down the street. I envision someone in Cambodia finding out that there is leprosy across the street." As the global economy collapsed, Google gleamed among the ruins. 

This was all years before people started even talking about "big data."

 But times have changed. Now, data talk is everywhere, and people are more worried than excited. The NSA looms over every tech discussion.

An Atlantic Special Report

Google Flu Trends Gets It Wrong Three Years Running
Why Google Flu Is a Failure
A Case of Good Data Gone Bad
Data Fail! How Google Flu Trends Fell Way Short
Google Flu Trends Failure Shows Drawbacks of Big Data

Even the reliable pro-nerd hangout Slashdot headlined their thread on the story, "Google Flu Trends Suggests Limits of Crowdsourcing."

A skim of the headlines and most of the stories would lead you to believe that Google Flu Trends had gone horribly wrong. Here, this thing was nominally supposed to predict future CDC reports—and it wasn't even as good as simple extrapolations from past CDC reports.

How you like them apples, Google/Big Data! 

But lurking in the Lazer paper was an interesting fact about the Google Flu Trends data: when you combined it with the CDC's standard monitoring, you actually got abetter result than either could provide alone. "Greater value can be obtained by combining GFT with other near–real time health data," Lazer wrote. "For example, by combining GFT and lagged CDC data."

If that was true, and the CDC was aware of it, couldn't they simply combine the data on their own and have a better epidemiological understanding of the country? And if that was true, wasn't Flu Trends a success, at least according to the standards laid out in theNature paper describing it in 2009?"

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