Last Thanksgiving, I observed that Google Trends was showing what would be some of the most common dishes served at the holiday’s meals. Yesterday, NPR reported that U.S. intelligence agencies might be turning to Google Trends as another source of intel for emerging trends that their traditional sources might not catch. With a bit more analysis than my Thanksgiving observation, they might be able to see the movements of people directly.
Traditionally, intelligence agencies have relied on top-secret information to track changes in other countries. But wiretaps and secret intercepts didn’t help U.S. officials predict the Arab Spring that has brought revolution across the Middle East and North Africa.
In hindsight, officials say there could have found some clues about what was about to happen if they had read open sources more closely.
Gabriel Koehler-Derrick, an instructor at West Point, and Joshua Goldstein, a researcher at Princeton University, think they may have at least a partial solution. They are seeing if they can tap into the mood of the country by tracking what its citizens are searching for online. And the way they do that is by using the search engine Google Trends.
“What we did was a comparison of search terms over time starting from the moment the Internet was plugged back in by the government of Egypt on Jan. 25, and moving forward for a period of about 30 days to see what we could find out,” Koehler-Derrick says. As he saw it, it was an electronic way of taking a very broad poll.
Google Trends is basically a way of looking at what people are focusing on by mapping out their Google searches. Marketing firms have been using Google Trends for some time. The government has, too. Back in 2009, during the swine flu epidemic in the U.S., Google launched Google Flu Trends. The National Institutes of Health found it helped them track outbreaks of the disease.
It turns out that when people started to feel feverish and nauseous, they would go to Google to check out their symptoms. While it wasn’t a perfect indicator, Google Flu Trends often beat government predictions about flu outbreaks by a week or more. Imagine using the Internet to do the same thing in predicting political unrest.