Google has announced it’s support in the fight against the flu. The premise is that it can use it’s database of user searches for “flu” or “flu symptoms” to predict outbreaks 7-10 days ahead of time, giving public health officials time to react.
However tracking the flu is just one of many valuable applications for Google’s rich databases. In fact Google provides a portal for users to download data on searched keywords through Google Trends. I recommend spending some time at this site. Here are two of many interesting graphs I found:
It’s interesting that Google has released this data, which likely has proprietary value. Rather than forecasting flu outbreaks or enabling my election analysis, Google could forecast consumer trends and trade stocks based on the findings, hoping to profit when the flu hits. Consider Google’s initiative to predict flu outbreaks 7-10 days ahead of time; what if Google kept their data secret and traded drug companies based on the findings. Before you shoot down this investment idea, consider that there are hundreds of similar ideas lurking in the Google data – some are certainly viable as investment theses.
Alternatively, if Google didn’t want to run a hedge fund, they could probably sell their search engine data to those who do. I’m guessing it’s worth a lot of money, even on the scale of their ~$5B in yearly earnings.
So why does Google give up this info for free? It may be because using it for proprietary profit would incite public outcry and contradict Google’s credo of free information. It also may be that Google does plan to use it – they’re just waiting for the right time. They control the terms on which they release the data and could control the most valuable and timely nuggets for themselves.
No matter the case, this is a gray frontier for Google between their fiduciary profit motive and their avowed sense of public good. Sound familiar?