Google Play icon

Does Big Data have the flu?

Share
Posted March 18, 2014

These days, when people start feeling a fever and a sore throat coming on, often times their first move isn’t to the med­i­cine cab­inet. Instead, it’s to a com­puter or smart­phone to Google their symptoms.

These queries, which make up only a tiny frac­tion of the more than 7 bil­lion total queries the search engine han­dles each day, are all stored by Google. The com­pany uses this data for a variety of rea­sons; it can help Google improve its search results for users—which also boosts the company’s bottom line—and can also ben­efit the pop­u­la­tion as a whole in other ways.

One example of the latter is Google Flu Trends, a sta­tis­tical model devel­oped by engi­neers at Google.org—the company’s foun­da­tional arm—in an effort to “now-​​cast” what’s hap­pening with the flu on any given day.

But research has shown that GFT often misses its target. These results led North­eastern Uni­ver­sity net­work sci­en­tists and their col­leagues to take a closer look at how Big Data should be used to advance sci­en­tific research. Their report was pub­lished online Thursday in the journalSci­ence.

“Big Data have enor­mous sci­en­tific pos­si­bil­i­ties,” said North­eastern pro­fessor David Lazer. “But we have to be aware that most Big Data aren’t designed for sci­en­tific pur­poses.” Fully achieving Big Data’s enthu­si­as­ti­cally lauded poten­tial, he added, requires a syn­thesis of both com­puter sci­ence approaches to data as well as tra­di­tional approaches from the social sciences.

The paper was co-​​authored by Lazer, who holds joint appoint­ments in the Depart­ment of Polit­ical Sci­ence and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­enceAlessandro Vespig­nani, the Stern­berg Family Dis­tin­guished Uni­ver­sity Pro­fessor of Physics at North­eastern who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Sci­ence,Bouvé Col­lege of Health Sci­ences, and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence; North­eastern vis­iting research pro­fessor of polit­ical sci­ence Ryan Kennedy; and Gary King, a pro­fessor in the Har­vard Uni­ver­sity Depart­ment of Government.

North­eastern net­work sci­ence researchers David Lazer (left) and Alessandro Vespig­nani (right) examine how Big Data can best be uti­lized for sci­en­tific gain in a report pub­lished online on Thursday in the journal Sci­ence. Photos by Brooks Canaday.

“In a sense, Google Flu Trends is not bad, but it’s no better than any basic approach to time series pre­dic­tion,” Vespig­nani said. “So the issue is in the claims and the dis­re­gard of other tech­niques or data more than the actual result.”

In their paper, the researchers explain where Google Flu Trends went wrong and examine how the research com­mu­nity can best uti­lize the out­puts of Big Data com­pa­nies as well as how those com­pa­nies should par­tic­i­pate in the research effort.

By incor­po­rating lagged data from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion as well as making a few simple sta­tis­tical tweaks to the model, Lazer said, the GFT engi­neers could have sig­nif­i­cantly improved their results. But in a com­panion report also released Thursday on the Social Sci­ence Research Network—an online repos­i­tory of schol­arly research and related materials—Lazer and his col­leagues show that an updated ver­sion of GFT, which came about in response to a 2013Nature article revealing GFT’s lim­i­ta­tions, does little better than its predecessor.

While Big Data cer­tainly holds great promise for research, Lazer said, it will only be suc­cessful if the methods and data are made—at least partially—accessible to the com­mu­nity. But that so far has not been the case with Google.

“Google wants to con­tribute to sci­ence but at the same time does not follow sci­en­tific praxis and the prin­ci­ples of repro­ducibility and data avail­ability that are cru­cial for progress,” Vespig­nani said. “In other words they want to con­tribute to sci­ence with a black box, which we cannot fully scru­ti­nize and understand.”

If sci­en­tists are to “stand on the shoul­ders of giants,” as the old adage requires for moving knowl­edge for­ward, they will need some help from the giants, Lazer said. Oth­er­wise fail­ures like that with Google Flu Trends will be ram­pant, with the poten­tial to tar­nish our under­standing of any­thing from stock market trends to the spread of disease.

 

 

Source: Northeastern

Featured news from related categories:

Technology Org App
Google Play icon
85,465 science & technology articles

Most Popular Articles

  1. New treatment may reverse celiac disease (October 22, 2019)
  2. "Helical Engine" Proposed by NASA Engineer could Reach 99% the Speed of Light. But could it, really? (October 17, 2019)
  3. The World's Energy Storage Powerhouse (November 1, 2019)
  4. Plastic waste may be headed for the microwave (October 18, 2019)
  5. Universe is a Sphere and Not Flat After All According to a New Research (November 7, 2019)

Follow us

Facebook   Twitter   Pinterest   Tumblr   RSS   Newsletter via Email