Big Data Made Easy

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The trend last year about using "big data" in higher education is a very real trend, but not one that is always easy to explain to people.

One way to define big data is to say that it is usually "data sets with sizes beyond the ability of commonly-used software tools to capture, curate, manage, and process the data within a tolerable elapsed time."  Okay, but...  Some examples include information in web logs, data from the RFID tags on many objects, social network activity and other social data and Internet search indexing.

So, it's no surprise that Google has a lot of data and tries to use it in many ways. Some of it goes to trying to target ads that you see to your online activities. But, a "better" use is when they use it to benefit all of us. For example, while millions of users around the world search for health information, they can see trends. Right now there are more flu-related searches and a few years ago Google began to ask if search query trends could provide the basis for an accurate, reliable model of real-world phenomena.

By the way, much of this work comes from Google.org rather tha n the google.com you use to search. Google.org is the group that develops "technologies to help address global challenges and supports innovative partners through grants, investments and in-kind resources."

Some examples of their work are Google Person Finder, which helps reconnect people in the wake of major disasters and Google Earth Engine to enable scientists, governments and native tribes to monitor changes to the Earth’s surface. (They also funded organizations for efforts in improving education, health and clean water access in the developing world, leading scientific discoveries about deadly diseases or incubating new forms of renewable energy.)

They have developed ways of tracking Flu and text-decoration: initial;">Dengue Trends, which use the big data from search to provide early warning systems for possible disease outbreaks. If you look at their United Staes Flu Trends now, you can see that they have found a close relationship between how many people search for flu-related topics and how many people actually have flu symptoms.

The skeptical student in all of us might say that not everyone who searches for "flu" is actually sick, but it turns out that a pattern emerges when all the flu-related search queries are added together.

As you can see in the graph at the top of this post, the search trends closely match (and sometimes indicate beforehand) the information obtained by the Center for Disease Control (CDC).

Their findings, which have been published in the journal Nature, compared their query counts with traditional flu surveillance systems and found that many search queries tend to be popular exactly when flu season is happening. The numbers on these search queries give an accurate estimate of how much flu is circulating in different cities, states, countries and regions around the world.

Like most of you, I am less impressed when Facebook or Google knows to give me ads about education and technology, and more impressed if they can predict a pandemic early enough to get enough vaccines made and into the right places.


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