Infrastructure // PC & Servers
Commentary
4/28/2009
12:16 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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Google Not Connecting Swine Flu Dots

Google's map of swine flu outbreaks is useful if you need a geography lesson, but it's not doing much to help people figure out where the disease is heading next or, more importantly, how it got started in the first place.

Google's map of swine flu outbreaks is useful if you need a geography lesson, but it's not doing much to help people figure out where the disease is heading next or, more importantly, how it got started in the first place.Google also collects trends based on searches for terms associated with flu symptoms which can help the Centers for Disease Control and other public health officials get ahead of the curve during flu season. Even here, though, there doesn't seem to be an uptick in the trend line because the number of searches for those terms isn't statistically significant at this point.

The Google map for the swine flu shows concentrations of swine flu outbreaks with a legend on the left that provides more details for each digital thumbtack, such as "25/03/2009 male cousin aged 13 years living in the home had influenza-like symptoms on March 25, 2009, 3 days before onset of the patient's symptoms. confirmed cases are 100 miles apart."

Unfortunately, the legends aren't organized in any sort of order -- there's no chronology and geographic areas aren't grouped together the way they are on the map. It might be asking too much to ask for a breadcrumb or other graphical signal to indicate patterns, but right now, all the map does is satisfy the urge to say, "oh wow, now there's a case in British Columbia."

Meanwhile, the media is treating this as an unavoidable act of God that began somewhere in Mexico. But there's significant anecdotal evidence that farms owned by Smithfield Farms are actually at the root of this deadly outbreak. Tom Philpott at the Grist was the first to dig up information linking Smithfield Farms to the outbreak, but few in the U.S. media have picked up on that. Finally, the AP today reported that residents of the town of La Gloria, close to where the farms are located, claim they suffered the same symptoms in March as are now working their way through the rest of Mexico and throughout the world. Residents of La Gloria regularly go to market in Mexico City. And the Guardian newspaper reports that a four-year-old resident of La Gloria may have been the first to suffer from the disease.

Smithfield Farms denies any connection, and its local plant manager called the tie an "unfortunate coincidence." Note that Hooker Chemical said that high rates of birth defects in the town of Love Canal, N.Y. was a coincidence; it was later proved that Hooker Chemical had caused the problem by dumping burying dioxin into the town's water supply in land which it later sold to a community school board.

Smithfield Farms has already been walloped by the Environmental Protection Agency for dumping toxic pig wastes into lakes and rivers and, as this Rolling Stone article notes, is utterly unapologetic for its behavior (read article on empty stomach, and be prepared to give up mass-produced pork products).

Mexican officials have sought to dispel the notion that the Smithfield Farms, a major employer and taxpayer, is in any way connected to this outbreak. This is exactly why we need an independent source of information like Google, which can dispassionately and automatically gin up crucial data. As the world gets bigger and more interconnected, we become increasingly dependent on Internet-based information and communication tools to bridge gaps of distance, culture and obfuscation. It's up to Google to make sure the data it provides is as usable and actionable as possible.

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