How can power companies harness the power of data to predict which trees will fall on power lines during a storm – thus allowing them to prevent blackouts before they happen?
The work of Richard Rothman, a professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is more fundamental: to save lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta predicts flu outbreaks, once it examines reports from hospitals. That takes weeks. In 2009, a study seemed to suggest researchers could predict outbreaks much faster by analyzing millions of Google searches.
Spikes in queries like "My kid is sick" signaled a flu outbreak before the CDC knew there would be one. That posed a new question for Dr. Rothman and his colleague Andrea Dugas:
Could Google help predict influenza outbreaks in time to allow hospitals like the one at Johns Hopkins to get ready?
They ask different questions. But all five of these researchers form part of the new world of Big Data – a phenomenon that may, for better or worse, revolutionize every facet of life, culture, and, well, even the planet. From curbing urban crime to calculating the effectiveness of a tennis player's backhand, people are now gathering and analyzing vast amounts of data to predict human behaviors, solve problems, identify shopping habits, thwart terrorists – everything but foretell which Hollywood scripts might make blockbusters. Actually, there's a company poring through numbers to do that, too.