Whether or not the current outbreak of swine flu translates into a world pandemic, we are already seeing information and and data spreading around the web at a staggering pace.
The speed at which information travels brings opportunities and threats and we need to treat information we see on line with caution and respect. The social web will deliver information on which we can rely and data which will deceive.
Many news organisations around the world today are linking to a Google map showing almost live data on reported cases. Whilst this may be a very useful tool, what few of the news organisations report is that it appears to have been created by Henry Niman, a biomedical researcher with a history of using the internet to forecast doom. Niman has claimed global pandemics were under way several times before.
The spread of disinformation does not mean that there is no risk. The truth is at this point we just don’t know the scale of the threat. A much better source of information may come from Google. ‘Google Flu trends’ which I wrote about in PR Media Blog last November, uses search terms to predict how many people in a particular area are searching for relevant information about flu. There is a high correlation between the searches and numbers of actual cases of flu and they can show incidence faster official channels like the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Google believes it can accurately estimate flu levels one to two weeks faster than published CDC reports.
The problem at the moment is that the data covers just the US and is only updated weekly. If Google were able to update faster and use the technology to cover the whole planet we would have a much better picture of what is actually happening.