A surprising source of collective intelligence

I’m a bit late in writing about this, but it’s too cool to pass up.  Last week, Google launched a new service, Google Flu Trends, that really demonstrates the power of new sources of information in the digital age.  Flu Trends attempts to warn users of regional outbreaks of the flu.  This enables hospitals, medical practitioners, and individuals to prepare.  It’s not exactly a new idea.  The C.D.C. publishes reports on outbreaks of influenza, based on data compiled from heath care providers.  Another web service, whoissick.org, combines user-reported illnesses with Google maps to show you the various bugs circulating in your area.  But Google Flu Trends may identify outbreaks more quickly because of the unique data source that it uses.

A Google team noticed that certain search terms, like “flu symptoms”, are much more common during flu season.  Only logical, right?  Google employees created a list of these types of searches, and compared the date/location of past searches with C.D.C. data on influenza trends.  It turns out that the number of people with the flu and the number of these types of searches are closely related.  This means that analyzing the numbers of influenza-related searches on Google should provide an estimate of the number of flu cases.  By looking at IP addresses, specific regions can be isolated.  This is a very nifty sort of collective intelligence based on data that is simply a by-product of Google’s primary function.

The sheer number of Google searches makes them an excellent source of collective intelligence.  Nielson Online estimated that 4.8 billion searches were made using Google in September 2008 in the US alone.  That’s roughly 160 million U.S. searches per day.  In addition to the volume of data, search engine results are fascinating sources of information because of their timeliness.  As the New York Times wrote:

[...] the data collected by search engines is particularly powerful, because the keywords and phrases that people type into them represent their most immediate intentions. People may search for “Kauai hotel” when they are planning a vacation and for “foreclosure” when they have trouble with their mortgage. Those queries express the world’s collective desires and needs, its wants and likes.

To me, this is a cool usage of data that most people don’t even realize they are generating.  However, the implications for privacy are a little bit frightening.  If you don’t believe me (and you have a Google account), check your web history.  Google saves every search you make, along with any web pages you visit from the search results.  A year’s worth of search data can create a surprisingly complete picture of a person’s life.  Imagine having access to that data for every single user.  I don’t want to be pessimistic about this.  For the most part, I think the possibility of exciting and useful projects like Flu Trends greatly outweighs the potential hazards of this data.  What do you think?

You can read the New York Times report on Google Flu Trends here.  The official Google Blogs also covered it here.  Statistics on the number of U.S. Google searches were pulled from the Nielson Online news release available here.

A plug for holyshitkorea.com

I know most of the people who read my site also read Erin’s, but I thought I’d link to her most recent post anyways.  She’s written an excellent post about the way classrooms are used in Korea.  For those that don’t know, each class has it’s own room, and the teachers move to different classrooms throughout the day.  It seems like a fairly insignificant difference, but Erin and I both think it’s a source of much larger problems.

You can read her post here:  Some unsolicited advice…

Small victories

I’m learning to be pleased with the small improvements I see in my students.  When we first arrived, our students already knew the question “How are you?”  When asked, they would demonstrate their excellent memorization skills and rattle off:  “Finethankyouandyou?”  The shy kids would simply answer “fine”.

After more than 2 months of teaching, about 50% of my students will respond with something other than fine.  Some are good, some are so-so (they love that expression), some are bad.  A few are even terrible or great.  It makes my introduction/greeting slightly less boring.

On a related note, Erin’s efforts are also paying off.  When we started, the students already knew “nice to meet you” (nicetomeetyou).  They said it every time they saw us.  I’ve “met” some of my students hundreds of times.  Erin has gone to great lengths to remedy this, and her students have mastered the more-appropriate “nice to see you” (nicetoseeyou).

I suppose that counts for something, right?

Sometimes Korea is a little strange.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted.  I don’t have any excuse, except that not much has happened.  Teaching is pretty much the same, the economy still sucks, life marches on.

Last week, however, the Korea Herald reported on two Constitutional Court cases that were too interesting to pass up.  A little background might be helpful.

The Constitutional Court is a specialized court that deals primarily with constitutional review.  It also handles impeachments, party dissolution and some other odds and ends.  Like the US Supreme Court, its decisions cannot be appealed.  Judges are appointed differently, however.  Three are appointed directly by the President, three are selected from candidates that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court nominates, and three are appointed by the National Assembly (the legislature).  It’s an interesting system.

Case 1:  A victory for blind masseurs!

In Korea, only the blind can become certified massage therapists.  You read that correctly.  An entire profession is reserved for the blind.  This is Korean law.

This is a fairly contentious issue among the parties involved.  In the past, this was a government directive, rather than a law.  In 2003, the Constitutional Court upheld the restriction, but a 2006 court declared the directive discriminatory.  This upset the blind massage therapists, who protested until the National Assembly passed a law restricting certification to the blind.

In September 2008, a group of sighted therapists appealed this law to the Constitutional Court.  The Court upheld the law, and issued the following statement:

It is true that the corresponding clauses restrict the freedom of choosing a career for the non-blind. [...] This restriction, however, is an inevitable one, necessary to secure a minimum level of social support for the blind who have few other career options than massage therapist. It, therefore, does not violate the petitioners’ constitutional freedom on careers and equality.

An interesting footnote to this story is the method of protest that both sides have used.  They gather on bridges, and threaten to jump off.  Sadly, some of them have followed through.  I don’t know why they jump off bridges.  It seems like there would be a dozen other ways to protest, but bridge-jumping seems to be the chosen form of civil disobedience.

The New York Times published a good story on this back in September (here’s the link).  I can’t link directly to the current Korea Herald story, because of their crummy web page.

I don’t even know what to say about this one.  It just seems weird to me.  The original policy goes back to the years of Japanese colonization, but I don’t know the reasoning behind it.  If it’s a modesty thing, it seems archaic.  As a social welfare system, it just seems odd.  I guess it guarantees at least one career for the blind, but there there are hundreds of thousands of illegal sighted therapists because of it.  I welcome your comments on this one.

Case 2:  A setback for adulterers.

Adultery is a criminal offense in Korea, punishable by up to two years in prison.  This actually isn’t that uncommon; adultery is still illegal in many US states.  Hell, in Michigan, it could get you life in prison.  I don’t think these laws generally get prosecuted, however.  In Korea, they aren’t often prosecuted, but it still happens.  The Korea Herald reported that 47 cases were prosecuted in 2007, down from 103 in 2005.

The Constitutional Court upheld this law, as it has done on three other occasions (1990, 1993, and 2001).  Interestingly, 5 of the 9 judges ruled that it was unconstitutional, but it requires six votes to overturn a law.

In its ruling, the Court stated that “[t]he law is intended to safeguard marriage, which is the bedrock of family life.  Adultery, thus, cannot be a purely ethical or moral issue which the law cannot meddle in.”

Socially, Korea is pretty conservative, so this isn’t really a surprise.  In my opinion, no matter what the Court said, this is clearly an ethical/moral issue.  Laws governing such things always disappoint me.  I suppose my title is incorrect, as this really isn’t strange.  Especially after three more US states passed constitutional bans on same-sex marriages.  In Korea and the US, social conservatives continue to fight for a government small enough to fit in your bedroom.