Archive for January, 2012

How new web technologies and innovations are impacting our society

Sunday, January 29th, 2012

The blog post today will focus on the impact that novel web technologies such as social media and search engine tools (i.e.: Google) have in our society. These tools have been used to track diseases and to better understand different trends online. If you are like millions (or billions) of people around the world that can access the internet, you somehow engage in internet-enabled self-diagnosis for diseases (among other types of queries) using search engines and other web tools. In today’s hyper-connected world, these tools are not just used to do self-diagnosis or track diseases in populations but to evaluate different topics that are discussed in social media (for example, trend topics in social medias such as Twitter, Facebook and others). First let’s analyze how a search engine can be helpful in predicting epidemic outbreaks of a disease caused by viruses or bacteria. Google Inc. did a very interesting study to evaluate if their search engine was able to detect areas that an influenza epidemic could be eminent (for more details see the article “Detecting influenza epidemics using search engine query data” on Nature). The study was very straightforward since it evaluated queries that were done at Google using keywords containing anything related to influenza. Using this approach, they were able to track areas that could be having an epidemic of influenza. Their results were compared to the CDC (Center for Disease Control, a United States government organization) in terms of which of them could get areas affected earlier and Google’s algorithm won. Google web search logs could provide one of the most timely, broad-reaching disease monitoring systems to date. Whereas traditional monitoring systems used by CDC and the government require 1-2 weeks to gather and process the data, Google’s estimates are in a daily basis. Now both Google and CDC work together in any disease outbreak showing how this tool can help the government in tracking disease outbreaks. The second tool that is revolutionizing various sectors in our society is social media. Two recent studies were able to show, using the Twitter platform, that we can monitor trends based on the posts of users. PacSocial, which is a corporation that is focused on the development of technologies that enable large-scale shaping of social communities online was able to use “socialbots” to influence connections and interactions between two users (see “PacSocial: Field Test Report” for more details). They were able, for the first time, to show how tools such as “socialbots” can influence human connection online. This study is crucial for a better understanding on how social media is shaping our society. Another study focused on Twitter users designed by professors from MIT (see “Modeling the adoption of innovations in the presence of geographic and media influences” recently published in PLoS ONE) examined the effects of social network structure innovation adoption creating a model based on geography and mass media. The authors showed that mass media was responsible for increasing Twitter users with time. Interestingly, the authors also show how powerful is the mouth-to-mouth spread of these medias between the young. Cities with the most early adopters of Twitter tended to have large universities or technology centers attracting younger people. Twitter was launched in the Bay area in San Francisco and the other users started to come from the east cost, basically Cambridge and Boston where both MIT and Harvard University are located. These reports on new technologies influencing society and decisions, especially in epidemic outbreaks, show how empowering search engines and social media have become to our society. I suppose that several other scientific studies, especially using the Facebook platform that now have more than 800 million users will be done. I hope that these new web tools will help our society in different ways, especially for disease monitoring. This could be important to understand the trends that are influencing our society online. (Image credits: Sociology World)