Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Swine flu points the way
Predictive search tools in development may have a broader application than disease prevention
By the time you read this, we'll all have stopped shaking hands, air-kissing and travelling on the Tube. A circulation manager's dream story, swine flu is spreading rapidly across media outlets across the globe, infecting TV, print and the web, as journalists scrabble to bring us the latest on disappointed honeymooners and mask-wearing travellers.
However, as millions turn to the internet for information on the bug, it's creating a beanfeast for opportunist businesses and a vital radar system for health professionals.
A rash of websites has sprung up to service the paranoia - search for ‘flu', and sites such as stop-birdflu.com will sell you respirators, face masks, disposable hazmat suits (so you can pretend you're on CSI), latex gloves and plastic shoe covers. And just in case anyone still wants to talk to you in this get-up, they'll supply hand sanitiser so you can fend them off without fear of contamination.
Despite government attempts to ban online sales of Tamiflu, dozens of online pharmacies offer home delivery - although there is a high probability you'll receive nothing more for your £100 than a box of repacked Tic-Tacs.
Yet search is bringing something more important to the outbreak than dodgy tablets and ineffective facemasks.
In November, Google announced it would be working with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US to create a predictive tool for disease outbreaks, starting with flu. Google found a link between search behaviour and the spread of the disease, which could be used as a predictive tool.
It identified a set of search queries that appeared more commonly at times of the year when flu outbreaks occurred, and found that they tended to crop up seven to 10 days before the CDC's reporting of diagnosed cases.
Since we know that people search for things they're interested in, we can use search data to predict the ebb and flow of interest. Google has done this very effectively with Google Trends.
Google Flu Trends has also created a new way of understanding the spread of the disease.
Time series graphs let us compare flu activity against previous years, and heat maps show which states in the US are generating most flu-related queries - currently, Hawaii. The system has just launched in beta to cover Mexico.
Google also helps us to resolve another conflict that has broken out over the pandemic. Israeli deputy health minister Yakov Litzman has called for the disease to be referred to as ‘Mexican', rather than ‘swine', flu. He may be pushing water uphill on this one, as there are 100 times more searches for ‘swine flu' than ‘Mexican flu' - and no one seems to have mentioned upsetting Mexicans.
However, it isn't just Google that's throwing light on the pandemic.
The CDC is releasing news on Twitter for those who need hourly updates on the minutiae, and the race has started among other websites to mash-up the data to create new insights.
The best is probably Healthmap.org, which compiles data from the World Health Organisation, Google News, and more than a dozen other sources to create a world map showing the incidences of several diseases. Pick your favourite and start worrying.
So why am I writing about this in Marketing?
If health professionals can start to use social media, search and other digital sources to discover what people are experiencing in the real world, so can we. Every month, about 4bn searches are submitted on Google in the UK alone. That's 4bn opportunities to listen to consumers - for any marketer, that's just too good to pass up.
Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 seconds on how it's all going to be fine
- Direct.gov.uk features a swine flu FAQ, advising people to wash their hands and cover their faces when sneezing or coughing to ‘catch it, bin it, kill it'.
- A box of 50 surgical masks can be bought online for £20 including delivery. A full gas mask starts at £150, while a hazmat suit from the US is for sale on eBay for £40.
- According to Google Trends, domestically, people in Cardiff and Poplar in London are logging the most searches for flu information.
- Those worried about how a global infection may spread can carry out a trial run with the online game Pandemic. It allows users to create an ‘ideal' disease and try to infect the world's population.
- At the time of writing, Thomas Cook, First Choice, Thomson and Virgin Holidays had cancelled flights between the UK and Mexico.
- Gordon Brown sought to offer reassurance to Britons last week, saying, ‘We have been preparing for this scenario for many years. Britain is among the best-prepared countries in the world.'
This article was first published on marketingmagazine.co.uk
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