November 12, 2008

Google Flu Trends

Announced today, Google is using individual's search term patterns to track and predict the spread of the flu.

Google: Flu Trends:

Google Flu Tracker

Notice that even though the country at large has only barely started to climb, Michigan is showing more activity.

Google Flu Trends: Michigan

I am, on the one hand, excited to see Google applying appropriate data mining techniques to develop and test skills that could be used for disaster management and general health. On the other hand, I think this tool needs some work.

First, Google Flu Trends needs to be tested and validated by public health researchers. It is great that Google is putting it out, and I am very excited about this resources as an indicator or trend showing Google's commitment to the community at large. I would be more excited if I saw articles comparing and contrasting it with other similar tracking tools, and linking it to other informational tools beyond saying the CDC says you should get a flu shot.

Second, IMHO, the methodology. Of course, being that this is Google, we don't really have a clue how they arrived at this. They give us access to their data, but we don't know what they are tracking or how this is related to the outcomes. The methodology is missing, and I'm not sure how relevant the data is when you don't know the methodology that resulted in the data. We are lacking the opportunity to validate the data. This is a problem for me. If it is something more just of general interest, then fine, trust Google without knowing how they got there. With health information, I would feel safer if I knew more. Frankly, you have the same problem with Google Trends looking at the corporate and business information they make available. Fascinating, but would you put you money behind it in planning investments?

Which leads to my third thought. What little I've been able to tease out about this is that they are tracking the geographic use and incidence of phrases such as "flu diagnosis". I hope that they are using a rich collection of words related to the flu. Perhaps something like this:

(diagnosis OR symptoms OR "what's wrong" OR "do I have") (flu OR influenza OR vomit OR vomiting OR cough OR coughing OR chills OR aches OR aching OR headache):

Of if you want to get more technical, maybe something like this:

(diagnosis OR symptoms) (flu OR influenza OR ~vomit OR ~cough OR influenza virus OR influenza viridae OR H3N2 OR H1N1 OR H5N1 OR H9N2 OR "upper respiratory tract infection" OR URTI OR "severe acute respiratory syndrome" OR SARS OR pandemic OR Orthomyxoviridae OR "respiratory syncytial virus" OR RSV OR "West Nile virus"):

Now, what would make this all much more powerful, would be to bring together a collection of data sources that contain things people say about their health. Google searches is one. I would not be surprised if Google included phrases in people's email if they have GMail accounts. If you also included microblogging tools such as Twitter,, Plurk, Jaiku, Pownce, etc., social networks such as Facebook and Myspace, and other social media, then we'd have such a rich source of sources that I would hope the predictive validity would be very high. Here is a screenshot from someone else who is thinking about this - Morbus on Twitter.

Twitter: Morbus:

Twitter: Morbus (Flu Tracking)

Now, I just wish Morbus would share their findings. :)

Posted by pfa at 01:33 PM | Comments (0)

September 04, 2008

Assumptions about Library's Roles in Disasters

I just spent the last week and a bit working on one blog post about "What Assumptions From Now Are Shaping the Future of Librarianship?". (What slowed me down was that my computer crashed 6 times in 4 days, and required me to rebuild my lost work each time.) Here is the blog post I was working on.

Questions to Ask about Librarianship and the Future: Thoughts about the Ithaka and Portico Reports:

Basically, while the blog post is about some recent reports looking at professional trends, my perspective came from a few personal experiences.

One Story

I was on a committee with faculty, staff, and administrators to look into planning and preparations for potential disasters. During the various meetings and discussions, it became clear that there were a number of assumptions at various levels about how local libraries would support the community during disasters.

Patron Assumption #1:
All academic libraries keep basic reference materials in both print and electronic, so everyone will always have access to the core important information even if one library gets smashed in a disaster.

Patron Assumption #2:
Local public libraries aren't expected to keep everything when there is a strong academic research library in the area. Of course, the academic library and the public library collaborate and talk about who is keeping what, so we don't have to worry about it - they've already done that.

Patron Assumption #3:
I don't personally have to worry about keeping anything as long as it is in the library, because the library will always have it.

Patron Assumption #4:
For the really important stuff, the library has it in a variety of formats. After all, there was that Ohio backout, and Katrina, and 9/11 - we know that we can't always get to the electronic. Not to even mention the digital divide, or that some folks have tech of physical problems that prevent them from using one media or another. The library is going to have the Good Stuff in electronic, and print, and maybe other media as well.

These assumptions are very flattering, in a way. People were happy with what we were doing, and beyond even just respecting us as professionals, they thought the librarians had thought of everything in advance and were doing everything necessary to take care of everything. Pretty comprehensively. Hmmmm.

Having some concerns about these assumptions, I went back and started to talk these over with friends and colleagues and administrators. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the librarians had corresponding but different assumptions.

Academic Librarian Assumption #1:
We primarily support the day-to-day needs of our immediate patrons (faculty, staff, students of our institution, and alumni, to a different extent), focusing on what is needed for their core functions of education and research. Everything over that is gravy, extra - not required.

Academic Librarian Assumption #2:
Public libraries have the primary responsibility for providing and preserving any materials that would be needed by the local community. We love our public library, but there really isn't much overlap.

Academic Librarian Assumption #3:
If you as an individual think there is something you can't live without, you should keep a copy for yourself.

Academic Librarian Assumption #4:
Electronic-only is perfectly fine, since the Ohio blackout was a blip and will never happen again. We will never be without power for more than a day, and will never have a crisis where we need information that is only available in electronic format. Besides, we kept backups on CD or DVD locked in a dark archive somewhere. We'll be able to get to those if we really need it.

OK, now I am oversimplifying both perspectives here. I am not directly quoting anyone. At this point, I am not presenting proposals for any solutions, merely presenting a possible problem arising from different communities having different assumptions about who is doing what and who is responsible for doing what. Remember this little ditty?

"This is a little story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.
There was an important job to be done and Everybody was sure that Somebody would do it.
Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.
Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody's job.
Everybody thought that Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it.
It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done."

If there are these kinds of misunderstandings in this area, are there other assumptions about the profession that are not being addressed in our decisionmaking for the future and for which the profession could later be blamed? Do we need to better communicate this type of context in our decisionmaking? Personally, I have an interest in how new technologies are being used to prepare and respond to disasters, with the flip side of the coin being when new technologies are NOT appropriate for these functions. I'll be blogging more on those topics. With the broader questions and context raised here, I don't know what the solution is, but am hoping there will be more of a discussion about these types of issues.

Posted by pfa at 10:01 AM | Comments (2)

August 14, 2008

Maps, Mashups, and Mirrors, Oh, My! - Innovative Disaster Response & Tracking Tools

Since Hurricane Katrina I've been talking to many people about ideas for crisis and disaster planning, information needs and how to anticipate them, innovative technologies to support communication, collaboration, response, management, and much more. But I haven't been blogging about it.

This will be a bare beginning, just a peek at a few tools using social media and mashups in innovative and urgently helpful ways. To explain the concept in simple terms, a technological mashup is a new tool that is created as the end result of combining data or information with data or functions from two or more existing tools or sources. For more information, here is the Wikipedia article on mashups. Social media or social technologies are terms I prefer to use instead of the popular but imprecise "Web 2.0".

Returning to Hurricane Katrina, here is an example of Hurricane Information Maps -- a mashup combined with crowdsourcing, using Google Maps with markers placed by the general public with information and resources.

Hurricane Maps Mashups

Hurricane Information Maps:

Seattle city government has another mashup that combines mapping with real-time data on reported events and crises (fires, ambulance calls, car accidents, etc.), including a community reporting system.

Community Safety Mashup from Seattle City Govt Community Safety Mashup from Seattle City Govt

SeaStat (Seattle Statistics) Impacts: My Neighborhood Map:

Sahana is an open source, free, downloadable software package for disaster management, including a focus on facilitating collaboration among volunteers and people in the field. In their own words, "Sahana is a Free and Open Source Disaster Management system. It is a web based collaboration tool that addresses the common coordination problems during a disaster from finding missing people, managing aid, managing volunteers, tracking camps effectively between Government groups, the civil society (NGOs) and the victims themselves."

Sahana Open Source Disaster Management Software


RISEPAK (Research and Information System for Earthquakes - Pakistan) was developed by a team lead by Dr. Sarah Zaidi of Harvard in response to earthquakes in Pakistan, and is an open source, online tool incorporating many social technologies to facilitate community collaboration and response.

Risepak Earthquake Disaster Management Online Communication System


More information:

AIDG Blog [Appropriate Technology, Development, Environment]: Video: RISEPAK, a Web 2.0 tool for disaster response [Harvard Social Enterprise Conference] by Catherine Laine, March 24, 2008:,com_jd-wp/Itemid,34/p,1030/

Another good example of crowdsourcing is the "Did You Feel It?" maps from the USGS Earthquake Center, allowing significant data contributions to earthquake tracking and prediction from the general population in affected areas of the United States. The images below show the data input screen and a map of earthquakes for today and this week.

Earthquake Maps & Crowdsourcing Earthquake Maps & Crowdsourcing

USGS: Earthquake Hazards Program: Did You Feel It?: Community Internet Intensity Maps:

Probably my favorite mashup of disaster information is the interactive map housed at the Havair Information Service in Budapest, from the National Association of Radio-Distress Signalling and Infocommunications, Emergency and Disaster Information Services (EDIS).

Disaster Map

This amazing tool combines Google Earth with the WorldKit mapping tool with several real-time data sources collecting and merging information on weather, health, avian flu, politics, wars, tech disasters, and much more, all combined into a single display rich in information. The map tracks and displays hundreds of different types of emergencies or crises. The following image shows just a very small sampling of the icons used on the map (click on the image to enlarge it).

Disaster Map

You can scroll down the page for more data, and click for a report on the event.

Disaster Map Event Display

Or you can simply hover over icons on the map for a pop-up with a brief description of the event.

Disaster Map, 2

Havaria Information Service (Budapest, Hungary): RSOE EDIS: Emergency and Disaster Information Service:

What about mirrors? What are the most important and useful of these tools? Think for a minute. Most of these, if not all, appear on a single server somewhere. What if there was a disaster or crisis that made one of these tools unavailable right at the moment we need them? Any of these that is truly necessary in disaster or crisis planning and response should be mirrored -- copied and made available in many different locations. Think about it? Is there an organization that has oversight of this type of issue? I don't know of one - if there is, please comment on this post and share the information.

More reading about social media and mashups in crises and disasters.


Slideshare: Dave Fleet: Social Media in a Disaster:

Posted by pfa at 11:12 PM | Comments (0)