November 17, 2008

Logic Lost In Google Flu Flap

Greetings. Last December, in For Google and Others, Few Good Deeds Go Unpunished, I noted how for companies like Google, it seems impossible to avoid ideologically-based criticisms even when performing obvious and valuable public services.

Another example of this sad dilemma has unfortunately burst onto the stage.

Google recently announced their Google Flu Trends service -- designed to help pinpoint potential flu outbreaks through analysis of search query data, and perhaps able to help focus on influenza problem spots well in advance of other leading metrics such as emergency room visits.

Does this analysis of user-provided query data necessarily represent the same kind of quality experimental data corpus as controlled experiments and statistically rigorous surveys? Probably not -- but the Google Flu Trends data, as I understand it, is not meant to replace those other forms of information. Rather, it is aimed at helping to provide a very early look at developing trends, to be accepted -- or not -- as observers feel appropriate.

When I heard about this project, it took me all of a few seconds to realize that it was a brilliant and potentially very valuable use of already existing data -- something that would likely be impossible without the benefit of Google's scale and analytical resources. How could anybody object to the use of aggregated Google data in direct support of such important public health goals?

So I was disappointed (but not really surprised) to learn today that some privacy advocates -- seemingly allowing ideology to overcome both logic and common sense -- are indeed complaining about Google Flu Trends.

It's true that there are areas where I'd like to see additional privacy-related actions by Google, but as I've said before, I believe that Google is already on a positive trajectory in this regard, and that they deserve credit for privacy enhancements already taken and in the process of deployment.

What Google doesn't deserve are knee-jerk negative reactions to services that are of clear -- one might even say overwhelmingly obvious -- potential benefit to society at large, without detrimental effects on privacy of any significance whatsoever. Arguing about the applicability of the reported data is one thing, but screaming "privacy violation" inappropriately is something else altogether.

I am increasingly disheartened by the ideologically skewed statements I see from many in the privacy community, which ever more frequently seem to fly in the face of realistic and balanced analysis of associated issues.

Such individuals and groups are free to proceed as they see fit of course, but I will not rubber stamp their pronouncements when I believe them to be wrong, and if that means I'm frequently standing alone so be it -- I have a pretty thick skin.

Still, it is unfortunate for us all when purveyors of the "Google as designated enemy" philosophy allow this view to supersede acknowledging when Google does things right.

We all deserve credit when credit is due. That holds true for me, for you, and yes, for Google Trends regarding the Flu.


Posted by Lauren at November 17, 2008 03:33 PM | Permalink
Twitter: @laurenweinstein
Google+: Lauren Weinstein