Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Poverty Trends in Google Search

(Greetings to Community Voice Mail supporters who are visiting for the first time. Thanks for reading the email we sent you today, and I hope you enjoy the blog!)., the philanthropically-inclined arm of Google, recently launched an interesting site called Flu Trends. By analyzing billions of Google searches made over time for words related to the flu (think "flu shots," "body aches" and other such things), Google determined that what people were searching for could describe actual flu activity about 2 weeks sooner than the data gathered by the Centers for Disease Control. In other words, if a lot of people in Alabama are using Google to search for words related to the flu, this turns out to be a good indicator of actual flu incidence in that state. This is a grossly simplified description of what Google did to analyze the data, but it's a really interesting and useful development that will have implications for other areas.

For instance...given the economic downturn, what if this trend analysis was directed towards Google searches for terms related to poverty? Are there an increasing number of searches using keywords that might be indicative of increases in homelessness, hunger, the need for services and other poverty indicators?

As an experiment, I conducted a very simple search using Google Trends, including just 3 terms: "unemployment benefits," "homeless" and "food stamps." Here's the resulting trend chart for 2008 thus far:

(here's a link to the actual search, for a better view and to let you tweak the search)

Google and the CDC have an army of Ph.D's working on Flu Trends, and I don't pretend to fully understand how Google Trends works. This simple chart, however, appears to indicate that searches for these items are generally trending up in the last half of this year, at least relative to "unemployment benefits" as a search term. Are more people in the U.S. seeking information about food stamps, unemployment benefits and homelessness because they are increasingly hungry, out of work, and suddenly facing life without a roof overhead? Are these symptoms of "economic flu"?

I hope that Google and others use these amazing new databases to start predictive tracking of other ills in society. For the time being, wash your hands, cover your cough, and pinch your pennies.


Shawn Collins said...

The sharp increase in searches for food stamps around September is perhaps due to the eligibility guidelines that change in October.

Washington State's income guidelines for food stamps went from 120% of the federal poverty level to 200% in October of 2008.

Shawn Collins said...

Correction: Previously the guidelines went from 130% to 200% of the federal poverty line.

See related article
"Record number in state on food stamps"

Community Voice Mail said...

Thanks Shawn!