A bird’s-eye view on a nation’s health issues through searches made on Google
The online magazine Das Cloud and the interactive agency X3 are launching Macroscop, the first data journalism project in Romania. The experimental project brought together a team of journalists, designers, and programmers that analyzed medical searches made on Google, from Romania, in the last 3 years, and made a visual interactive representation with the top 14 high volume searches. The terms are ”medical tests”, ”mite”, ”colon help”, ”swine flu”, ”helicobacter pylori”, ”hepatitis C”, ”lupus”, ”meningitis”, ”mite bite”, ”pancreatitis”, ”measles”, ”rubella”, ”scoliosis”, ”shingles”.
What can be said about a nation’s state of health based on the evolution of the most searched-for terms on Google ? In some of the cases, there are large similarities with the reports of the medical institutions. For example, when a rubella epidemic was starting in Romania in November 2011, the number of searches on Google for this term increased with more than 88% month-over-month in October. In the following month, both the National Center for Surveillance and Control of Communicable Diseases of Romania (CSCCD) and Romanian mass media were scoring larger than normal activity on the topic of rubella. CSCCD saw a 33.3% increase in the reported cases of rubella and Romanian media produced 68.63% more articles with the subject of rubella.
See the chart below:
||Evolution of searches on Google
||Evolution of media coverage on the topic, data from Media IQ
||Evolution of reported cases of rubella (CSCCD)
||+27.27% (42 articles)
||+21.43% (51 articles)
||+68.63% (86 articles)
||+380.23% (413 articles)
In most of the cases, the media has a large influence on what people are searching on the internet. It can either stimulate a large artificial interest for a disease by only reporting on a few cases (e.g.: a mite byte can give Lyme disease or when a public figure was diagnosed) or act as a resonance box when citing medical reports of a disease. This is why we have overlapped data from Romanian media monitoring tool Media IQ on Macroscop. The Google searches made by the whole population of a country could theoretically match the results made by health institutions, but faster, if one could extract the external elements influencing the searches, such as media articles or online advertising.
“In a digital world, journalists now have huge amounts of information at hand that they can use to obtain a bird’s-eye view on a topic and pursue data storytelling. Even more, if they put the data in the form of an interactive chart, the journalistic endeavor can be continued by the readers. Macroscop is a tool that anyone can use to discover things that we, at Das Cloud, didn’t see,” said Bogdan Pencea, project manager of Das Cloud.
The data from Google searches can be used as a complementary cheap surveillance tool for monitoring the health state of a nation, to detect when and where medical services are needed. In Romania, the number of physicians is the lowest in the European Union, except only Poland, due to brain drain towards more developed countries. 42,000 physicians have to keep healthy a population of 19 million people. The relevancy of the Google medical queries grows as the number of internet users is growing. About 50% of Romanians were using the internet in 2012. One of their popular activities is searching for medical advice on the internet. The largest medical portal had 2.6 million unique visitors last month. So, Romania needs either more physicians, or more users with internet access. In both circumstances, the population could more easily get access to information that can teach them how to prevent illness or when to go see a doctor.
“An educated patient is a better patient and a better partner with the caregiver. And in areas where the health system is weak, having access to information for people to take more charge of their health is an important factor to strengthening healthy communities and limiting the spread of contagious disease,” said Christopher Bailey from World Health Organization, questioned by Das Cloud.
Das Cloud is an online magazine of the community of developers, designers, and entrepreneurs in the field of technology in Romania whose mission is to bring into the public eye the latest releases in the world of high-tech, deciphering their practical impact. Through articles and creative special projects, Das Cloud tries to imagine how technology could change people’s lives for the better.