The predictive power of search engine queries

This morning’s Observer column

The most interesting aspect of the Google data, however, was revealed in a chart which compared flu queries with ‘objective’ data on incidence of the disease compiled by public health authorities. The chart suggests that the search data accurately reflects incidence – but is current rather than lagged. (The official statistics take about two weeks to collate.)

This suggests other possibilities – for example in macroeconomic management. Everyone I know in business has known for months that the UK is in recession, but it’s only lately that the authorities have been in a position to confirm that – because the official data always lag the current reality. So policymakers are in the situation of someone trying to drive a car which has a blacked-out windscreen. The driver’s only view of the road is a via TV monitor showing what was happening 10 seconds ago. How long would you give the driver before he hits a wall? We need to raise our game, and maybe intelligent use of the net offers us a way of doing it.