Health / Pharma

Big data: Should it come with a big health warning?

Pick a number between 1 and 100.
Got one? Good. Congratulations. Chances are that by plucking that number out of the ether you have done a better job than Google of predicting the percentage increase in the number of flu-like illnesses that will strike Americans over the next few weeks.
That’s right. You, armed only with your puny brain, can outdo a multi-billion dollar corporation that employs some of the smartest people in the world.
This example might seem trivial, but many think it matters because of the status of Google Flu Trends (GFT), once seen as the shining example of the power of so-called big data.
The data it uses to make predictions about how many will be sneezing and wheezing a week or so ahead is drawn from search terms, blog entries and messages shared via social media – so-called unstructured data.
This is very different to the structured and slow stream of information gathered from forms filled in at surgeries and hospitals that, before the rise of big data, were how predictions were made.
And the problem is, GFT turned out not to be terribly accurate.

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