March 3, 2017

Google catches Dengue Fever

Google announced that it has been using search data to track likely-looking dengue fever hotspots. It follows a simple logic - that in areas where an outbreak has occurred, people are more likely to search Google for advice on how to treat and manage it. Therefore a higher incidence of dengue-related search terms would indicate a potential outbreak, enabling public health authorities to move in to contain it much faster than before.

Question is: is this flawed logic? It assumes that the majority of the population in dengue-affected areas (a) have access to the internet, and (b) would consider the internet a primary source of information equal to or better than turning to their local GP for immediate advice. The first assumption holds true in one of their trial areas, Singapore, but the latter is an interesting hypothesis that will be important to consider in future studies if proved correct.

Also, if this technique becomes common-place, who owns the data? Google has aggregated it from search terms so could be said to own the summaries, but can public health authorities demand access to these summaries and expect to be granted it free for the public interest?

Topics: Bioinformatics, Blog