Friday, March 25, 2011

Can Google be used to predict political unrest?

Nidhal had a post last month on Statistical Analysis to Predict the Next Revolution(s).'s NPR had an interesting story of using Google Trends to predict what is going on in a country. In talking about Egypt its says:
"Google Trends allows us to get a sense of atmospherics," Koehler-Derrick says. "There are approximately 16 million Internet users in Egypt. Now, this is undoubtedly a demographic that is biased toward younger people. If you put Google's market share at 10 percent, which I think is absurdly low, then that is 1.6 million users that we have essentially surveyed for 30 days."
He and Goldstein searched Google using Arabic because that would better measure what locals are interested in. Using the search term "Tunis," they wanted to see how many Egyptians were following the demonstrations in Tunisia. They compared the number of Google searches for "Tunis" with the number of Google searches for pop stars in Egypt.
"Typically, as I think you'd find in the United States, pop stars trump almost any search you can think of," Koehler-Derrick says. "But the search for Tunis prior to the demonstrations that kicked off in late January were surprisingly high."
Wait a minute. Even a small Charlie Sheen rant can throw all this statistics out the window. Now this particular story is mostly about intelligence. But it also mentioned this fascinating use of Google Trends for predicting pandemics:
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., the National Institutes of Health used Google Flu Trends to 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.
Fascinating! I don't know how robust these connections are, nevertheless, this is really interesting.

Listen to the full story here.

(Added Mar 26: Here is the link to Google Flu Trends. Thanks - Emre)


emre said...

It is worth mentioning the Flu Trends link:

The article says: "wiretaps and secret intercepts didn't help U.S. officials predict the Arab Spring that has brought revolution across the Middle East and North Africa."

I question this. If they knew, does anyone think they would have blurted it out?

Salman Hameed said...

Thanks Emre. I have added the link.

May be you are right. But the congress also held an inquiry into the failure of intelligence regarding these Middle East uprisings. If they really did know - I doubt there would have been those hearings. This does not mean that no one had predicted this. In fact, on of the think-tanks (I'm blanking on the name) had a report out about a year ago predicting much of the stuff that happened in Egypt. But it seems that they were widely ignored.

Dr. M. Akbar Hussain said...

Well, Google Earth can be used to predict God's wrath by analysing the distribution of fault lines and continental plates...if and only if the Sumatrans, Pakistanis, Chileans, New Zealanders and the Japanese knew it and refrain from immoral acts ;-). I think Philipines will be next. Britons and Australians need not worry though, based on the distribution of plate tectonics.